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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Miracles

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MIRACLES

1. The narratives a ) In the Gospels Jesus is recorded to have cast out devils ( Matthew 8:28 ; Matthew 15:28 ; Matthew 17:18 , Mark 1:25 ), restored paralytics ( Matthew 8:13 ; Matthew 9:6 , John 5:8 ), revived the withered hand ( Matthew 12:13 ), released from the spirit of infirmity ( Luke 13:12 ), stanched an issue of blood ( Matthew 9:22 ), cured dropsy ( Luke 14:2 ), allayed fever with a touch ( Matthew 8:15 ), given speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind ( Matthew 9:33 ; Matthew 12:22 , Mark 7:35 , Matthew 9:29 ; Matthew 20:34 , Mark 8:25 , John 9:7 ), cleansed leprosy ( Matthew 8:3 , Luke 17:18 ), and even raised from the dead ( Matthew 9:25 , Luke 7:15 , John 11:44 ). Besides these miracles of healing there are ascribed to Him other extraordinary acts, such as the Stilling of the Storm ( Matthew 8:26 ), the Feeding of Five Thousand ( Matthew 14:19 ) and Four Thousand ( Matthew 15:35 ), the Walking on the Sea ( Matthew 14:28 ), the Change of Water into Wine ( John 2:9 ). The blasting of the Fig Tree ( Matthew 21:19 ), and the finding of the Coin in the Fish’s Mouth ( Matthew 17:27 ), may possibly be figurative sayings misunderstood. The Two Draughts of Fishes ( Luke 5:6 and John 21:6 ) may be variant traditions of one occurrence, and, like the recovery of the Nohleman’s Son of Capernaum ( John 4:50 ), may be regarded as proof of superhuman wisdom, and not of supernatural power. These miracles are presented to us as the acts of a Person supernatural both in the moral character as sinless and perfect, and in the religious consciousness as alone knowing and revealing the Father. It was the universal conviction of the early Christian Church that after three days He rose from the dead ( 1 Corinthians 15:4 ), and was universally present in supreme power ( Matthew 28:18 ; Matthew 28:20 ).

Regarding the miracles of Jesus the following general considerations should be kept in view. ( a ) It is impossible to remove the records of miracles from the Gospels without tearing them to pieces, as these works of Jesus are so wrought into the very texture of His ministry. ( b ) The character of the miracles is absolutely harmonious with the power of Jesus; with only two apparent exceptions they are beneficent. The blasting of the fig tree ( Matthew 21:19 ), even if the record is taken literally, may be explained as a symbolic prophetic act, a solemn warning to His disciples of the doom of impenitent Israel. The finding of the coin in the fish’s mouth ( Matthew 17:27 ) would be an exception to the rule of Jesus never to use His supernatural power on His own behalf, and the narrative itself allows us to explain it as a misunderstanding of figurative language. ( c ) The miracles were not wrought for display, or to prove His claims. Jesus rejected such use as a temptation ( Matthew 4:6-7 ), and always refused to work a sign to meet the demands of unbelief ( Matthew 16:4 ). He did not highly esteem the faith that was produced by His miracles ( John 4:48 ). The cure of the paralytic, which He wrought to confirm His claim to forgive sins, was necessary to assure the sufferer of the reality of His forgiveness ( Matthew 9:6 ). The miracles are not evidential accessories, but essential constituents of Jesus’ ministry of grace. ( d ) While faith in the petitioner for, or recipient of, the act of healing was a condition Jesus seemingly required in all cases, while He was prevented doing His mighty works, as at Nazareth, by unbelief ( Matthew 13:58 ), while the exercise of His power was accompanied by prayer to God ( John 11:41-42 ), His healing acts were never tentative; there is in the records no trace of a failure. ( e ) In view of one of the explanations offered, attention must be called to the variety of the diseases cured; nervous disorders and their consequences did not limit the range of His activity.

( b ) In the Acts the record of miracles is continued. The promise of Jesus to His Apostles ( Matthew 10:8 , cf. Mark 16:17-18 ) is represented as abundantly fulfilled. In addition to the charisms of tongues and prophecy (wh. see), there were signs and wonders wrought by the Apostles and others ( Acts 2:43 ; Acts 5:12 ; Acts 5:18 ; Acts 6:8 ; Acts 8:13 ). Miracles of which further details are given are the restoration of the lame man at the gate Beautiful ( Acts 3:7 ), and of the cripple at Lystra ( Acts 14:9 ), the cure of the palsied Æneas ( Acts 9:34 ), the expulsion of the spirit of divination at Philippi ( Acts 16:18 ), the healing of the father of Publius in Melita ( Acts 28:8 ), the restoration to life of Dorcas ( Acts 9:40 ) and Eutychus ( Acts 20:10 , the narrative does not distinctly affirm death). This supernatural power is exercised in judgment on Ananias and Sapphira ( Acts 5:5 ; Acts 5:10 ), and on Elymas ( Acts 13:11 ) acts the moral justification of which must be sought in the estimate formed of the danger threatening the Church and the gospel, but which do present an undoubted difficulty. One may hesitate about accepting the statement about the miracles wrought by Peter’s shadow ( Acts 5:15 ) or Paul’s aprons ( Acts 19:12 ). What are represented as miraculous deliverances from imprisonment are reported both of Peter ( Acts 12:8 ) and of Paul ( Acts 16:26 ). Paul’s escape from the viper ( Acts 28:3 ) does not necessarily involve a miracle. These miracles, which, taken by themselves as reported in Acts, there might be some hesitation in believing, become more credible when viewed as the continuation of the supernatural power of Christ in His Church for the confirmation of the faith of those to whom the gospel was entrusted, and also those to whom its appeal was first addressed. In this matter the Epistles of Paul confirm the record of Acts ( 1 Corinthians 12:10 ; 1 Corinthians 12:28 , 2 Corinthians 12:12 ). Paul claims this supernatural power for himself, and recognizes its presence in the Church.

( c ) We cannot claim to have contemporary evidence of the miracles of the OT, as we have of those of the NT. The miracles are almost entirely connected either with the Exodus from Egypt, or with the ministry of Elijah and of Elisha. The majority of the miracles of the first group are not outside of the order of nature; what is extraordinary in them is their coincidence with the prophetic declaration, this constituting the events signs of the Divine revelation. While the miracles ascribed to Elijah and Elisha might be considered as their credentials, yet they cannot be regarded as essential to their prophetic ministry; and the variations with which they are recorded represent popular traditions which the compiler of the Books of Kings has incorporated without any substantial alteration. The record of the standing still of the sun in Gibeon is obviously a prosaic misinterpretation of a poetic phrase ( Joshua 10:12-14 ); behind the record of the bringing back of the shadow on the dial of Ahaz ( 2 Kings 20:11 ) we may assume some unusual atmospheric phenomenon, refracting the rays of the sun; the speech of Balaam’s ass ( Numbers 22:27 ) may be regarded as an objectifying by the seer of his own scruples, doubts, and fears; the Book of Jonah is now interpreted not literally, but figuratively; the Book of Daniel is not now generally taken as history, but rather as the embellishment of history for the purposes of edification. The revelation of Jehovah to Israel is seen in the providential guidance and guardianship of His people by God, and in the authoritative interpretation of God’s works and ways by the prophets, and in it miracle, in the strict sense of the word, has a small place. While the moral and religious worth of the OT, as the literature of the Divine revelation completed in Christ, demands a respectful treatment of the narratives of miracles, we are bound to apply two tests: the sufficiency of the evidence, and the congruity of the miracle in character with the Divine revelation.

2. The evidence . In dealing with the evidence for the miracles the starting-point should be the Resurrection . It is admitted that the belief that Jesus had risen prevailed in the Christian Church from the very beginning of its history; that without this belief the Church would never have come into existence. Harnack seeks to distinguish the Easter message about the empty grave and the appearances of Jesus from the Easter faith that Jesus lives: but he is not successful in showing how the former could have come to be, apart from the latter. No attempt to explain the conversion of Paul without admitting the objective manifestation of Christ as risen can be regarded as satisfactory. It may not be possible absolutely to harmonize in every detail the records of the appearances, but before these narratives were written it was the common belief of the Christian Church, as Paul testifies, ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures’ ( 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ). If the Resurrection of Christ is proved, this fact, conjoined with His absolutely unique moral character and religious consciousness, in vests the Person of Jesus with a supernaturalness which forbids our limiting the actions possible to Him by the normal human tests. His miracles are not wonders , for it is no wonder that He should so act, but signs , proofs of what He is, and works , congrnous with His character as ‘ever doing good,’ and His purpose to reveal the grace of the Father. Harnack will not ‘reject peremptorily as illusion that lame walked, blind saw, and deaf heard,’ but he will not believe that ‘a stormy sea was stilled by a word.’ The miracles of healing are not all explicable, as he supposes, by what Matthew Arnold called moral therapeutics the influence of a strong personality over those suffering from nerve disorders, as they embrace diseases of which the cure by any such means is quite incredible; and the evidence for the cosmic miracles, as the miracles showing power over nature apart from man have been called, is quite as good as for the healing miracles. If the Synoptic Gospels can be dated between a.d. 60 and 90, as is coming to be admitted by scholars generally, the evidence for the miracles of Jesus is thoroughly satisfactory; the mythical theory of Strauss must assume a much longer interval. Harnack regards as ‘a demonstrated fact’ that ‘Luke, companion in travel and associate in evangelistic work of Paul,’ is the author of the Third Gospel and the Acts; nevertheless he does not consider Luke’s history as true; but Ramsay argues that the Lukan authorship carries with it substantial accuracy. In his various writings he has endeavoured to show how careful a historian Luke is, and if Luke’s excellence in this respect is established, then we can place greater reliance on the evidence for miracles in the early Church, as well as in the ministry of Jesus. Harnack lays great stress on the credulity of the age in which the Gospels were written; but this credulity was not universal. The educated classes were sceptical; and, to judge Luke from the preface to his Gospel, he appears as one who recognized the duty of careful inquiry, and of testing evidence. The miracles of the Gospels and the Acts are closely connected with the Person of Jesus, as the Word Incarnate and the risen Lord, and the credulity of the age does not come into consideration unless it can be shown that among either the Jews or the Gentiles there was a prejudice favourable to belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection. The character of the miracles, so harmonious with the Person, forbids our ascribing them to the wonder-loving, and therefore wonder-making, tendency of the times.

Some indications have already been given in regard to the evidence for the miracles of the OT. The frequent references to the deliverance from Egypt made in the subsequent literature attest the historical reality of that series of events; and it cannot be said to be improbable that signs should have accompanied such a Divine intervention in human history. Some of the miracles ascribed to Elisha are not of a character congruous with the function of prophecy; but it may be that we should very cautiously apply our sense of fitness as a test of truth to these ancient narratives. In the OT history, Prophecy (wh. see) was the supernatural feature of deepest significance and highest value.

3. Explanations . Admitting that the evidence is satisfactory, and the miracles are real, what explanations can be offered of them? ( a ) One suggestion has already been considered; it is favoured by Harnack and Matthew Arnold: it is that one person may exercise over another so strong an influence as to cure nervous disorders. The inadequacy of this explanation has been shown; but even were it admissible, a reason would need to be given why Jesus used a means not known in His age, and thus anticipated modern developments of medical skill. It is certain that Jesus worked His miracles relying on the Divine powers in Himself; whether in any cases this obscure psychic force was an unknown condition of His miracles is a matter of secondary importance.

( b ) A second suggestion, made by the late Duke of Argyll ( Reign of Law , p. 16), is that God chooses and uses laws unknown to man, or laws which, even if he knew, he could not use. He thinks that this would meet the prejudice of scientific thought against effects without causes. This explanation recognizes that miracles are not explicable by the laws of nature as known to man, and that it is of God’s free choice that for certain ends He uses means otherwise unknown. As these laws are quite hypothetical, and as this use of them only occasionally is not at all probable, this explanation does not appear to make miracles any more credible.

( c ) We may now attempt to define more closely what we mean by a miracle. It does seem, on the whole, desirable to restrict the term ‘miracle’ to an external event of which there is sensible evidence. Inward changes, such as in the prophetic inspiration, or the religious conversion of an individual, however manifest the Divine presence and action may be for the person having the experience, should not be described as miracles, unless with some qualification such as spiritual or moral . The negative feature of the external event which justifies our describing it as a miracle is that it is inexplicable by the natural forces and laws as known to us. The will of man is a force in nature with which we are familiar, and therefore the movements of the body under the control of the will are not to be described as miraculous. We say more than we are justified in saying if we describe a miracle as an interference with the laws and forces of nature, or a breach in the order of nature; for just as the physical forces and laws allow the exercise of human will in the movements of the body, so the power that produces the miracle may, nay must, be conceived as so closely related to nature that its exercise results in no disturbance or disorder in nature. The miracle need not interfere with the continuity of nature at all. The modem theory of Evolution is not less, but more, favourable to the belief in miracle. It is not a finished machine, but a growing organism, that the world appears. Life transcends, and yet combines and controls physical forces (Lodge’s Life and Matter , p. 198). Mind is not explicable by the brain, and yet the will directs the movements of the body. There is a creative action of God in the stages of the evolution, which attaches itself to the conserving activity. Applying the argument from analogy, we may regard the Person of Christ and the miracles that cluster round His Person as such a creative action of God. If we adequately estimate the significance of the Exodus in the history of mankind, the providential events connected with it will assume greater credibility. But there is a final consideration. The purpose of God in Christ is not only perfective the completion of the world’s evolution; it is also redemptive the correction of the evil sin had brought on the human race. It was fitting that the redemption of man from sin should be accompanied by outward remedial signs, the relief of his need and removal of his sufferings. God is without variation and shadow that is cast by turning in His purpose, but His action is conditioned, and must necessarily be conditioned, by the results of man’s use of the freedom which for His wise and holy ends He bestowed. He may in His action transcend His normal activity by a more direct manifestation of Himself than the natural processes of the world afford. The consistency of character of a human personality is not disproved by an exceptional act when a crisis arises; and so, to deal effectively with sin for man’s salvation, God may use miracles as means to His ends without any break in the continuity of His wisdom, righteousness, and grace.

4. Objections . It seemed desirable to state the facts, the proofs for them, and the reasonableness of them, before taking up the objections that are made. These objections refer to two points, the possibility of miracle at all, and the sufficiency of the evidence for the miracles of the Bible. Each of these may be very briefly dealt with. ( a ) For materialism , which recognizes only physical forces; and pantheism , which so identifies God and man that the order of nature is fixed by the necessity of the nature of God; and even for deism , which confines the direct Divine activity to the beginning, and excludes it from the course of the world, miracles are impossible. Agnosticism , which regards the ultimate reality as an inscrutable mystery, is under no logical compulsion to deny the possibility of miracles; Huxley, for instance, pronounces such denial unjustifiable. Two reasons against the possibility of miracles may be advanced from a theistic standpoint. In the interests of science it may be maintained that the uniformity of nature excludes miracle ; but, as has just been shown, the theory of Evolution has so modified the conception of uniformity that this argument has lost its force. Life and mind, when first appearing in the process of evolution, were breaches in the uniformity. The uniformity of nature is consistent with fresh stages of development, inexplicable by their antecedents; and only when science has resolved life and mind into matter will the argument regain any validity. In the interests of philosophy, it may be argued that miracles interrupt the continuity of thought : the world as it is is so reasonable (idealism) or so good (optimism) that any change is unthinkable. But the affirmation ignores many of the problems the world as it is presents: sin, sorrow, death are real; would not the solution of these problems give both a more reasonable and a better world? and if miracles should be necessary to such a solution, they are thinkable. Again, is it not somewhat arrogant to make man’s estimate of what is reasonable and good the measure of God’s wisdom and grace?

( b ) The more usual objection is the insufficiency of the evidence . Hume laid down this criterion: ‘No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. Or briefly, it is contrary to experience that a miracle should be true, but not contrary to experience that testimony should be false.’ But to this statement it may properly be objected, that it assumes what is to be proved; for, while it may be contrary to ordinary experience that miracles happen, what the defenders of miracles maintain is that there have been exceptional experiences of miracles. If miracles were common, they would cease to be so described; their uncommonness does not prove their incredibility. Although the test is one that has no warrant, yet it may be argued that Christ’s character and resurrection would stand it. It is less credible that the portrait of Jesus given in the Gospels was invented, than that Jesus lived as there depicted. It is less credible that the Apostolic faith in the risen Lord, and all it accomplished, should have its origin in illusion, than that He rose from the dead. The improbability of miracle is usually the tacit assumption when the sufficiency of the evidence is denied. If the relation of God to the world is conceived as a constant, immanent, progressive, perfective, redemptive activity, the probability of miracles will be so great that the evidence sufficient to prove an ordinary event will be regarded as satisfactory, provided always that this test is met, that the miracle is connected with the fulfilment of the Divine purpose, and is congruous in its character with the wisdom, righteousness, and grace of God.

5. Value . A few words may in conclusion be added regarding the value of the miracles. The old apologetic view of miracles as the credentials of the doctrines of Christianity is altogether discredited. It is the truth of the doctrines that makes the fact of the miracles credible. It is Christ’s moral character and religious consciousness that help us to believe that He wrought wonderful works. The NT recognizes that a miracle proves only superhuman power ( 2 Thessalonians 2:9 ); only if its character is good, is it proved Divine. In the OT prophecy is declared false, not only when unfulfilled ( Deuteronomy 18:22 ), but also when it leads to idolatry ( Deuteronomy 13:3 ). The moral test, which can be applied to the miracles of the Gospels, shows the irrelevancy, not to say the flippancy, of Matthew Arnold’s sneer about the turning of a pen into a pen-wiper as the proof of a doctrine. The miracles of the Gospels are constituent elements of Christ’s moral perfection, His grace towards men. While the miracles are represented in the Gospels as not in themselves sufficient to generate faith ( John 11:46 ; John 12:37 ), yet it is affirmed that they arrested attention and strengthened faith ( Matthew 8:27 , Luke 5:8 ; Luke 7:18 , John 2:11 ; John 6:14 ). Christ Himself is reported as appealing to them as witness ( John 5:36 ), but the appeal seems deprecatory, as elsewhere He rates low the faith that rests on seeing miracles ( John 4:48 ; John 14:11 ), while condemning the unbelief that resists even this evidence ( Matthew 11:20 ). At the beginning of the Christian Church the miracles had some value as evidence. Today the change Christ has wrought in human history is the most convincing proof of His claim; but we must not ignore the value the miracles had when they occurred, and their value to us still as works of Christ, showing as signs His grace.

Alfred E. Garvie.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Miracles'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/m/miracles.html. 1909.

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Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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