Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature


Additional Links

In every age there are certain great movements of human thought, which more or less influence the convictions of men in the mass, and carry them on to conclusions which, but a few years before, would have seemed altogether improbable. Sometimes it is very difficult to account for these movements. There has often been no master-mind leading the way whatever works have been written have rather been the result of the wave of thought passing over that small portion of the world which thinks than the cause of the wave. As far as cause can be traced, the new movement is a reaction, a recoil of the mind, from that which has gone before, whether in the way of dissatisfaction at the sloth and inactivity of the previous age, and at its being ignobly content to have no high aspiration, no high sense of the nobleness of man's mission, or a rebound from overstrained dogmatism and principles urged on to an extent which made them practically a burden and wearisomeness too great for men to endure.

The latter is perhaps the more common origin of new developments of thought, and is a power larger and more constantly at work than men are apt to imagine. But the explanation of the movements of the mind in our own time is rather to be sought in the meanness of the last century. Upon the whole, it was not a time of high purposes, though the War of Independence on the one side of the Atlantic, and the resistance to the despotism of Napoleon on the other, show that it was not wanting in great practical results. But as the present century advanced, the old lethargy which had enwrapped the minds of the English-speaking race gave way. Some men became intensely active in working for practical reforms; others set new modes of thought in motion, and everywhere there was On eager desire for thoroughness, and for probing: the principles of things to the very bottom. The old argument of "continuance" that a thing should still exist because it had existed gave way to an intense realism, which would let nothing exist unless it could prove its right to existence. Utilitarianism became the order of the day, and that poetry which often gilds a sleepy age, and makes it dwell at peace in a dreamland of repose, vanished before the energy of men keenly alive to the necessities and imperfections of the present.

It is this intense realism that has made men restless and ill at ease athaving to believe in miracles. A miracle stands on entirely different grounds from the whole present order of things, and is out of harmony with the main current of our thoughts. There have been ages when men lived for the future, when the present was neglected, and things unseen were the realities which engrossed their thoughts. When we read the accounts of the trials for witchcraft in New England a century or two ago, we find not the accusers only, but the accused full of ideas of the preternatural. What they saw had but slight influence upon them; what they imagined had alone power over their minds. We, on the contrary, live in the present. The turn of our minds is to verify everything. We call for proof, and whatever cannot be proved we reject. It is not merely miracles which we treat thus, but most of what the last century regarded as historical realities. The intense historical activity of the present day, which has rewritten for us the annals of Greece and Rome, of the Church and of England, of the great eras of Spain and the Netherlands, besides special studies of great value, has its origin in that same spirit for searching and proving which leads so many to reject miracles.

It is altogether unfair to lay the rejection of miracles to the charge of physical science. The leaders of science are as thoroughly realistic as our historians and men of letters, but not more so. They are themselves phenomena of an age which perpetually asks What is? They inquire into the conformation of the earth and its constituents; into the motions of the heavenly bodies, and the laws which govern them, with the same eagerness to find out present facts, and the explanation of them, as animates the historian and the practical reformer. Old beliefs in our day can no more stand their ground than old laws and old customs, unless they can prove their right to stand by an appeal to present usefulness. It is of no use to appeal to anything else. In the present state of men's minds, if a thing does not fit in to the present, it seems to have no right to exist at all.

But if the progress of physical science has little to do with the dislike to miracles and the supernatural, the rapid increase of material wealth, and the advance made in everything which tends to present comfort and enjoyment, have much to do with it. We are living in an age when the present is full of enjoyment. By our large ascendency over the powers of nature, the earth yields us its treasures with a bountifulness never known before. Our homes are replete with comforts and luxuries little dreamed of by those who went before; and the secret forces of nature are pressed into our service, and do our bidding. Side by side with this subjection of nature there has grown up a greatness of material enterprise unknown before. Vast projects are undertaken and persevered in, before which the greatest merchant princes of antiquity would have quailed. There is a grandeur of conception, a nobleness of purpose, an unflinching courage in many of the commercial undertakings of the present day, which, though gain may be their final object, yet give them a dignity and a poetry that make them for the time enough to conceal the deep cravings which are man's peculiar endowment, and which mark him out as a being destined for no common purposes.

Yet this present greatness of material things dwarfs many of man's higher gifts. Its influence begins early. Even in education it makes men aim chiefly at utilitarian objects, and at too early results. Parents do not care for anything which does not lead directly and at once to profit and pay. Whatever develops man's thinking powers, and aims simply at making him better and nobler in himself, is thrust aside. It would take too much time; defer too long the quick harvest of gains; might make men even indifferent to worldly prosperity, and unwilling to sacrifice everything to material wealth. Or, at all events it lies out of the circle of men's every day thoughts. Life is an eager race, with boundless prizes for all who press onwards and upwards. In so active a contest, with every energy on the stretch, and every exertion richly rewarded, it is no wonder if the present is enough; and in its enjoyment men thrust from them indignantly everything that would interfere with and render them less fit for the keen struggle after earthly success.

It is this spirit which makes it so difficult for men to believe in miracles. The purpose of miracles, and their whole use and intention hold so entirely distinct a place from that which is now the main purpose of the mass of men, that they will hear no evidence for them, nor stop calmly to consider whether they may not after all hold a necessary place in the order of things, and be as indispensable for man's perfectness as is this present activity. What too many do is to put aside the consideration of them entirely. They have a sort of notion that miracles contradict the laws of nature, and are therefore impossible. Without perhaps denying the historical accuracy of the Gospels in the main, they yet suppose that they were written by credulous men in a credulous age, and that if cool observers had been present, they could have explained on natural grounds all that took place. Probably they do not think much about the supernatural at all. They have plenty to occupy them; have no spare time; find their lives full of interest; they rise early to their labor and late take rest; and so are content with a general feeling that, whatever may be the explanation of man being what he is, and of the world being what it is, time will reveal it, and that no obligation lies upon a busy man to inquire into abstruse questions, with no present profit. When business is over and old age has come, then it will be his duty to make his peace with God. And he will do so in the ordinary way. as other men do. Religion is a thing relegated to the background for the present; in due time he will attend to it as a practical matter, in the same way in which he will attend to the making of his will.

This thorough realism of the 19th century, intensified by the vast facilities of combined action and, mutual intercourse, which make us live constantly in one another's company, would banish all care and thought of the future from our minds, if it were not that the belief in the existence of a God and of a future life is an undying conviction of our nature. It is a necessary part of ourselves to look forward. No present gains or successes can content us. We turn always to the future, and that with an eagerness which would make life unendurable if we were forced to believe that life were all. The doctrine of annihilation may be professed, but call never really be believed; for it violates the deepest instincts of our hearts. And thus compelled by the very constitution of our natures to believe that there is a God, and that we exist after death, religion itself becomes a very real thing, and supplies a real need. The existence of a God and the immortality of man are not doctrines which need proving. They are intuitions, innate ideas, which may and do gain form and shape from advancing knowledge, but which grew out of the soul itself. Over the savage they have little influence, but civilized and thinking man can never be complete and entire unless these deep instincts of his inner being have their needs fully met and satisfied. In a mail who stands perfect and complete, the necessities of the future must be as fully and entirely recognised and supplied as the requirements of the present. He must have a religion.

Now religion is either natural or revealed. Not that these two are opposed. The revealed religion which we Christians profess contains and gives new authority to all the truths of natural religion, while extending itself far beyond them. Natural religion is a dim feeling and groping after God as manifested in his works, and a distinguishing of right from wrong, as far as the indications of a righteous government existing now, and the laws of our own nature, and the marvellous gift of conscience, enable us to do so. In revealed religion we have fuller knowledge: knowledge of God's attributes, not merely as far as we can trace them in his works, but still more as they are manifested in his dealings with man as made known to us in revelation itself; knowledge of man, both as regards his present state and his future hopes; more exact knowledge, too, of right and wrong, the appeal now lying not to the varying codes of human morality, nor even to the inner conscience, which, as a faculty capable of education and development, is no rigid rule, but one which bends to every state of things, and adapts itself to every stage and degree of human progress and decay. Under a revealed religion the appeal is to an unchanging law of God. Morality has at last a settled basis, and man a fixed standard by which to judge his actions.

Now it seems almost supererogatory to show that natural religion was not suffice for man's wants. We know of no one who has definitely asserted that it does. Even Kant, though he appears to think that Christianity might now be dispensed with, yet distinctly holds that natural religion, without the teaching of Christianity, would not even now have been enlightened enough, or pure enough, or certain enough, to guide man's life.* But the whole state of the heathen world before Christ came, and now wherever Christianity is unknown, is proof sufficient of the utter powerlessness of natural religion. The Greek world, with its marvellous taste in art and appreciation of the beautiful, was yet intensely wicked. The state of things at Rome under the empire was so foul that modern pens would blush to describe it. What natural religion is where civilization does not exist, the condition now of savage tribes proves clearly enough. We will touch therefore only upon one point, that of progress. Apart from Christianity, there are at most in the world the very faintest indications of progress; usually none at all. In no form of natural religion, in no heathen religion, was there anything to lead man onward, or to make him better. At best, as under Mohammedanism, or the religion of Confucius, there was stagnation. And when, as in the case of so many of the older civilizations of the world, decay set in, there was no recuperative force. Man sank steadily and hopelessly. In the Old Testament alone do we find the thought of progress. A nation is there formed for a high and unique purpose; and to shape it for its end it is placed in a special and immediate relation to God, and is taught by messengers sent directly by him. Under this special dispensation, its one business was to grow fit for the work prepared for it; its one motto, progress. In the New Testament, progress is the central thought everywhere present; but no longer now for one nation it is progress for all mankind. It is a new kingdom that is proclaimed, and all who enter it are required to put away old things, and become new. It belongs to men who have left their previous condition far behind, and who, forgetting what is past, "reach forth unto those things which are before." And special stress is laid everywhere upon the duty of bringing all men into this new kingdom, and of Christians being the purifying salt which is to preserve the whole world.

The means by which Christianity thus renovates mankind, and becomes the moving force of all modern and real progress, is partly that it alone proposes to us principles so perfect that at the utmost our approach to their realization is a very distant one. The complete abnegation of self, the treatment of others with that justice, liberality, and love with which we would wish ourselves to be treated, and a holiness as absolute and entire as that of God himself such principles, while practically aiding us in our upward course, yet set us a standard which as a matter of fact, is unattainable. How often this is misunderstood! Men contrast our Christianity with what is set before us in the Gospels, and, either in mockery or in grief at the disparity, assert that our state is practically a mere heathenism. But while there is ample room for lamentation that we Christians are content to remain so very much below the standard set us, yet, so far as there is progress towards it so far as it can be truly said that this generation is in a higher stage than the last was, and is training the youth to attain in the next to a still nearer approximation to Christian perfectness, so far Christianity is doing its work; not merely its work on individuals these constantly, even where the general state of things is bad and low, it raises to a high degree of virtue and holiness but its work on the mass. If nationally we are making no progress, then our Christianity is not having its proper work, and, in an age which judges by results, is not proving its right still to exist. But even at the worst no Christian nation is hopeless: heathen nations sank without hope. Christian nations have again and again risen from the lowest degradation.

* "We may well concede that if the Gospel had not previously taught the universal moral laws, reason would not yet have attained so perfect an insight into them. Letter of Kant to Jacobi, in Jacobi's Werke, 3:523. But Christianity tends to progress not merely by the high ideal it sets before us, but by its power over men's sympathies. This power resides mainly in the human nature of Christ, but only when viewed in its relation to his Godhead. As the great proof of the Father's love to man, it does arrest our feelings, dwell upon our imagination, and inspire our conduct with motives such as no other supposed manifestation of the Deity to man has ever produced. Christ incarnate in the flesh is not merely the realization of the high standard of Christianity, and the model for our imitation, but acts also as a motive power, by which men are aroused and encouraged to the attempt to put into practice the principles of the religion which Christ taught.

If there be a God and the man who denies it contradicts the intuitions of his own nature it is religion, and revealed religion only, that gives us adequate knowledge of his nature and attributes, If there be a future and the very instincts of our nature testify that there is again it is revealed religion only that tells us what the future life is, and how we may attain to it. Yet necessary parts as both these beliefs are of oar nature, men may bring themselves to deny them. For a time they can put away from them both the future and a God. But if there be a present and this is just the one thing in which the 19th century does thoroughly believe even then, granting only this, if this present is to have any progress, and is to move onwards to anything better; if there is to be in it anything of healthful and vigorous life, this, too, is bound up with the one religion, which has satisfactory proof to give that it is revealed; proof that it did come really from God; and proof that it is the one motive power of human progress. If the light of nature hitherto has been insufficient to secure virtue or raise men towards it, that light will not suffice now, even though it has been fed and strengthened by centuries of Christian teaching. In asserting this, Kant asserted too much. Neither Christians nor Christian communities have as yet risen to anything like a high general standard of morality, to say nothing about holiness; remove the high ideal and the strong motives supplied by the religion of Christ, and there would result, first stagnation, and then decay. An "enlightened self-love" never yet successfully resisted any carnal or earthly passion. Christianity has effected much; the contrast between heathen and Christian communities is immense: but it has tot raised men yet to its own standard, nor even to a reasonably fair standard of moral excellence. Now, grant but the possibility of there being a God; grant but the possibility of there being a future, as there must necessarily be a connection between man's future and his present, and as our idea of God forbids our excluding any existent thing from connection with him, then at least a revelation would be useful, and as God must be good, there is no antecedent improbability in his bestowing upon man what would be of use and benefit to him. You must get rid of God must resolve him into a sort of nebulous all-pervading ether, with no attributes or personal force or knowledge (the Pantheists do this beautifully, and call God cosmic force) you must get rid of a future life, and account yourselves simple phenomena, like the monkey, and ascidian jellybags, from which you are supposed to be descended, with no connection with the past, no reason for your present existence, mere shooting-stars in the realms of space, coming from nowhere, and going nowhither, and so only, by the extirpation of these two ideas from your nature, can you make a revelation improbable. Even then your position is open to grave doubt. We can understand the law of evolution; and if the law be proved, though as yet it is unproved, it would involve me in .no religious difficulties, provided that evolution really worked towards a solid end. Accustomed everywhere else in nature to see things fitted to their place, and all things so ordered that there is a use for everything, I could understand the meanest thing in creation rising upwards in the scale through multitudinous forms and infinite periods of time, if finally there were some purpose for all this rising. The plan is vast and marvellous. It can be justified only by some useful end. And such an end there would be if, after vast ages of development, the tiny atom ended in becoming a reasonable and responsible creature, with some purpose for all this vast preparation, because capable of still rising upwards, and of "becoming partaker of the divine nature." But if the law of evolution stops at man without a future, then its product is not worthy of it, and so purposeless a law, ending in so mean a result for what is there meaner than man without Christ? falls to the ground as too grand in its design for so bare and worthless a result.

Yet even this is but part of the argument; the evidences in favor of Christianity have a collective force, and it is upon them as to whole that one fain rests secure. But we may well contend that if Christianity is necessary for our present well-being; if the advance of society; if the removal of the bad, the vile, and the sorrowful in our existing arrangements; if the maintenance and strengthening of the noble, the earnest, the generous, and the pure, is bound up with Christianity, as being the only sure basis and motive towards progress, then, at all events, religion can show cause enough for existence to make it the duty of men to examine the evidence which it offers in its proof. Nineteenth century men may decline to listen to arguments which concern only things so remote as God and the future. Have they not built railways, laid the Atlantic telegraph, found out the constituent elements of the sun through the spectrum, and gained fortunes by gambling on the stock exchange? What can men want more?' Well, they want something to bind society together: even the worst want something to control in others those passions to which they give free play in themselves. No man wants society to grow worse, however much he may do himself to corrupt it. But the one salt of society, the one thing that does purify and hold it together, is religion.

Now antecedently there is no reason why God might not have made natural religion much more mighty and availing. As it is, nothing is more powerless in itself, though useful as an ally to revelation. Religion or no religion means revelation or no revelation. Reject revelation, and the only reason for not rejecting natural religion is that it is not worth the trouble. If religion, then, is a necessity of our present state, this means that revelation is a necessity. We are quite aware that even revealed religion does not explain all the difficulties of our present state. There is very much of doubt suggested by our philosophy to which Christianity gives only this answer, Believe and wait. It is, in fact, rigidly careful in refusing to give any and every explanation of things present except a practical one: in the most marked way it is silent as to the cause of our being what we are, and as to the nature of the world to come. It tells us that we do not now see the realities themselves, but only reflections of them in a mirror, and even that only in a riddling way (1 Corinthians 13:12). Hereafter it promises that we shall see the things themselves, and understand the true nature and exposition of the enigmas of life. Meanwhile it gives us every practical help and necessary guidance for the present. Judged thus by practical results and by its working powers, it is a thing indispensable. Without it man is imperfect, and society has nothing to arrest its dissolution, or arouse it to a struggle after amendment. Reformation is essentially a Christian idea. That a state should throw off its ignoble past and start on a new quest after excellence and right is possible only where there is a religion strong enough to move men, and noble enough to offer them a high ideal. Reform movements have therefore been confined to Christian states; and for the individual, his one road to perfection has been a moving forwards towards God.

Upon this, then, we base our argument for miracles. The universal instincts of men prove the necessity of the existence of religion. Without it the promptings of our hearts, compelling us to believe in a God and to hope for a future, would be empty and meaningless; and this no human instincts are. There is no instinct whatsoever which has not in external nature that which exactly corresponds to it, and is its proper field of exercise. And, in the next place, natural religion, though in entire agreement with revealed, is, as we have shown, insufficient for the purposes for which religion is required. And, finally, there is the phenomenon that the revealed religion which we profess does act as a motive to progress. Christian nations in morals, in freedom in literature, in science, in the arts, and in all that adorns or beautifies society and human life hold undoubtedly the foremost place, and are still moving forward. And in proportion as a Christian nation holds its faith purely and firmly, so surely does it advance onwards. It is content with nothing to which it has attained, but sees before it the ideal of a higher perfection (Philippians 3:13-14).

Now a revealed religion can be proved only by that which involves the supernatural. What our Lord says to the Jews, that "they would not have sinned in rejecting him but for his works" (John 9:41), commends itself at once to our reason. No proof can rise higher than the order of things to which it belongs. And thus all that can be proved by the elaborate examination of all created things, and the diligent inquiry into their conformation and uses and instincts, and the purposes for which each organ or faculty was given them; yea, even the search into man's own mind, and all the psychologic problems which suggest so very much to us as to the purposes of our existence all this can rise no higher than natural religion. They are at best but guesses and vague conjectures, and a feeling and groping after truth. Nothing of this sort could prove to us a revealed religion. For how are we to know that it is revealed? In order to its being revealed, God must be the giver of it. And how are we to know that it is he who speaks? Its strength, its value, its authority, all depend upon its being the voice of God. No subjective authority can prove this. The nature of the truths revealed, their adaptability to our wants, their usefulness, their probability nothing of this would prove that they had not been thought out by some highly-gifted man. We must have direct evidence something pledging God himself before we can accept a religion as revealed.

We shall see this more clearly if we reflect upon the nature of the obedience which we are required to render to a revealed religion. Its authority is summary, and knows no appeal. It is God who speaks, and there is no higher tribunal than his throne. Take, for instance, the Ten Commandments. Essentially they are a republication of the laws of natural religion, excepting perhaps the fourth commandment. But upon how different a footing do they stand! The duty of not killing is in natural religion counteracted by the law of selfpreservation, and in heathen communities has been generally very powerless, and human life but little valued. Even in fairly-civilized communities murder was not a crime to be punished by the state, but to be avenged by the relatives of the murdered man. This even was the state of things among the Jews when the Ten Commandments were promulgated, and Moses, by special enactments, modified and softened the customs which he found prevalent, and which did not distinguish between wilful murder and accidental homicide. Natural religion, therefore, gave no special sanctity to human life, but regarded only the injury done to the family of the sufferer. The divine commandment has gone home straight to the conscience. It has made the shedding of blood a sin, and not merely all injury. Accordingly, Christian states have recognised the divine nature of the law by punishing murder as a public offence, instead of leaving it to be dealt with as a private wrong. A revealed religion therefore claims absolute power over the conscience as being the direct will of God. No question of utility or public or private expediency may stand in its way. It must be obeyed, and disobedience is sin. But plainly we ought not to yield such absolute obedience to anything that we do not know to be the law of God. Man stands too high in the scale of existence for this to be right. Were it only that he is endowed with a conscience, and thereby made responsible for his actions, it is impossible for him to give up the control over his own actions to any being of less authority than that One to whom he is responsible. But a revelation claims to be the express will of that very Being, and therefore a sufficient justification of our actions before his tribunal. Surely, before we trust ourselves to it, we may fairly claim adequate proof that it is his will. The issues are too serious for less than this to suffice.

But, besides this, when we look at Christianity, the nature of its doctrines brings the necessity of supernatural proof before us with intense force. It teaches us that God took our nature upon him, and in our nature died in our stead; and, as we have pointed out before, the strength of Christianity, and that which makes it a religion of progress, is this union of the divine and human natures in Christ. He is not merely the "man of sorrows," the ideal of suffering humanity and a religion that glorifies a sinless sufferer may do much to alleviate sorrow and sweeten the bitter cup of woe but he is much more than this. It is only when that sinless sufferer is worshipped as our Lord and our God that we reach the mainspring which has given Christianity its power to regenerate the world.

But how could such a doctrine be believed on any less evidence than that which directly pledged the divine authority on its behalf? The unique and perfect character of the Jesus of the evangelists; the pure and spotless nature of the morality he taught; the influence for good which Christian doctrines have exercised; the position attained by Christian nations, and the contrast between the ideals of heathenism and of Christianity all this and more is valuable as subsidiary evidence. Some of it is absolutely necessary to sustain our belief. Even miracles would not convince us of the truth of a revelation which taught us a morality contrary to our consciences. For nothing could make us believe that the voice of God in nature could be opposed to his voice in revelation. It is a very axiom that, however it reaches us, the voice of God must be ever the same. But these subsidiary proofs are but by-works. They are not the citadel, and can never form the main defence. A doctrine such as that of God becoming man must have evidence cognate to and in pari materie with the. doctrine itself. Thus, by a plain and self-evident necessity, revelation offers us supernatural proof of its reality. This supernatural proof is twofold, prophecy and miracle.

Now these two not merely support one another, but,are essentially connected. They are not independent, but correlative proofs. It was the office of the prophet gradually to prepare the way for the manifestation of the Immanuel upon earth. In order to do so effectually he often came armed with supernatural authority. But a vast majority of the prophets had no other business than to impress on the consciences of the people truths already divinely vouched for and implicitly accepted; and such no more needed miracles than the preachers of Christianity do at the present day. But among the prophets were here and there men of higher powers, whose office was to advance onwards towards the ultimate goal of the preparatory dispensation. Such men offered prediction and miracle as the seals which ratified their mission. In general men could be prepared to receive so great a miracle as that set forth in the opening verses of John's Gospel only by a previous dispensation which had brought the supernatural very near to man. If the Old Testament had offered no miracles, and had not taught the constant presence of God in the disposal of all human things, the doctrines of the New Testament would have been an impossibility.

But we shall understand their connection better when we have a clearer idea of the true scriptural doctrine of miracles. The current idea of a miracle is that it is a violation of the laws of nature, and as the laws of nature are the laws of God, a miracle would thus signify the violation by God. of his own laws. This is not the teaching of the Bible itself, but an idea that has grown out of the Latin word which as supplanted the more thoughtful terms used in the Hebrew and in the Greek Scriptures. A "miracle," miraculum, is something wonderful marvellous. Now no doubt all God's works are wonderful; but when the word is applied to his doings in the Bible, it is his works in nature that are generally so described. In the Hebrew, especially in poetry, God is often described as doing "wonders," that is, miracles. But the term is not merely applicable to works such as those wrought by him for his people in Egypt and the wilderness (Exodus 15:11; Psalms 78:12), but to a thunder-storm (Psalms 77:14), and to his ordinary dealings with men in providence (Psalms 9:1; Psalms 26:7; Psalms 40:5), and in the government of the world. But this term wonder is not the word in the Hebrew properly applicable to what we mean by miracles, and in the New Testament our Lord's works are never called "miracles" (θαύματα ) at all. The people are often said to have "wondered" (Matthew 9:33; Matthew 15:31) at Christ's acts, but those acts themselves were not intended simply to produce wonder; they had a specific purpose, indicated by the term properly applicable to them, and that term is sign.

This is the sole Hebrew term for what we mean by miracle; but there are other words applied to our Lord's doings in the New Testament which we will previously consider. And, first, there is a term which approaches very nearly to our word miracle, namely, τέρας , portent, defined by Liddell and Scott, in their Greek Lexicon, as a "sign, wonder, marvel, used of any appearance or event in which men believed that they could see the. finger of God." But, with that marvellous accuracy which distinguishes the language of the Greek Testament, our Lord's works are never called τέρατα in the Gospels. The word is used of the false Christs and false prophets, who by great signs and portents shall almost deceive the very elect (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22). The populace, however, expected a prophet to display these portents (John 4:48), and Joel had predicted that such signs of God's presence would accompany the coming of the great and notable day of Jehovah (Acts 2:19).

In the Acts of the Apostles our Lord is said to have been approved of God by portents as well as by powers and signs, the words literally being "Jesus of Nazareth, a man displayed of God unto you by powers, and portents, and signs" but the portents refer to such things as the star which appeared to the magi, and the darkness and earthquake at the crucifixion. Exactly parallel to this place are the words in Hebrews 2:4, where God is said to have borne witness to the truth of the apostles' testimony "by signs and portents, and manifold powers, and diversified gifts of the Holy Ghost," the description being evidently intended to include every manifestation of God's presence with the first preachers of the Gospel, ordinary and extraordinary, in providence and in grace, and not merely the one fact that from time to time they wrought miracles.

But the term portents is freely applied to the miracles wrought by the apostles, being. used of them no less than eight times in the Acts, and also in Romans 15:19, and 2 Corinthians 12:12. In every case it is used in connection with the word signs, the Greek in Acts 6:8; Acts 15:12, being exactly the same as that in Acts 2:43; Acts 4:30; Acts 5:12; Acts 14:3, though differently rendered. The two words, however, express very different sides of the apostles' working, the term sign, as we shall see hereafter, having reference to the long-previous preparation for the Messiah's advent, while portents were indications of the presence with them of the finger of God.

In the Synoptic Gospels, the most common term for our Lord's miracles is δυνάμεις , powers. Full of meaning as is the word, it nevertheless is not one easy to adapt to the idiom of our language, and thus in the Gospels it is usually translated "mighty works" (Matthew 11:20-21; Matthew 11:23, etc.), but miracles in Acts 2:22; Acts 8:13; Acts 19:11; 1 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Corinthians 12:28, etc. Really it signifies the very opposite of miracles. A δύναμις is a faculty, or capacity for doing anything. We all have our faculties some physical, some mental and moral-and these are all strictly natural endowments. We have also spiritual faculties, and these also primarily are natural endowments of our inner being, though heightened and intensified in believers by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Yet even this is, by the ordinary operation of the Spirit, in accordance with spiritual laws, and not in violation of them. The teaching therefore of this word δυνάμεις, powers or faculties, is that our Lord's works were perfectly natural and ordinary to him. They were his capacities, just as sight and speech are ours. Now in a brute animal articulate speech would be a miracle, because it does not lie within the range of its capacities, and therefore would be a violation of the law of its nature; it does lie within the compass of our faculties, and so in us is no miracle. Similarly, the healing of the sick, the giving sight to the blind, the raising of the dead-things entirely beyond the range of our powers, yet lay entirely within the compass of our Lord's capacities, and were in accordance with the laws of his nature. It was no more a "miracle" in him to turn water into wine than it is with God, who works this change every year. Nor does John call it so, though his word is rendered miracle in our version (John 2:11).

His language, as becomes the most thoughtful and philosophic of the Gospels, is deeply significant. He does not use the term δύναμις , faculty, at all, but has two words, one especially his own, namely, ἔργον, a work (yet used once by Matthew 11:2, who has so much in common with John); the other, the one proper term for miracle throughout the whole Bible, σημεῖον, a sign.

Our Lord's miracles are called ἔργα , works, by John some fifteen or more times, besides places where they are spoken of as "the works of God" (John 9:3; John 5:20; John 5:36). Now this term stands in a very close relation to the preceding word, δύναμις, a faculty. A faculty, when exerted, produces an ἔργον , or work. Whatever powers or capacities we have, whenever we use them, bring forth a corresponding result. We have capacities of thought, of speech, of action, common to the species, though varying in the individual; and what is not at all remarkable in one man may be very much so in another, simply because it is beyond his usual range. But outside the species it may be not only remarkable but miraculous, because it lies altogether beyond the range of the capacities with which the agent is endowed. And so, on the contrary, what would be miraculous in one class of agents is simply natural in another class, because: it is in accordance with their powers.

Now had our Lord been merely man, any and every work beyond the compass of man's powers would have been a miracle. It would have transcended the limits of his nature; but whether it would necessarily have violated the laws of that nature is a question of some difficulty. Supposing that man is an imperfect being, but capable of progress, the limits of his powers may be indefinitely enlarged. Those who hold theory of evolution concede this, and therefore concede that there is nothing miraculous in a remarkable individual being prematurely endowed with capacities which finally and in due time will be the heritage of the whole species. It is the doctrine of the Bible that the spiritual man has a great future before him, and the prophets of old, and the apostles and early Christians, endowed with their great charismata, or gifts, may be but an anticipation of what the spiritual man may finally become. Still, among the "works" of our Lord and his apostles, there is one which seems distinctly divine, namely, the raising of the dead. Gifts of healing, of exciting dormant powers, such as speech in the dumb, of reading the thoughts of others' hearts, may be so heightened in man as he develops under the operations of the Spirit that much may cease to be astonishing which now is highly so. But the raising of the dead travels into another sphere; nor can we imagine any human progress evolving such a power as this. We cannot imagine man possessed of any latent capacity which may in time be so developed as naturally to produce such a result. So, too, the multiplying of food seems to involve powers reserved to the Creator alone.

But the Gospel of John does not regard our. Lord as a man prematurely endowed with gifts which finally will become the heritage of the whole species; it is penetrated everywhere with the conviction that a higher nature was united in him to his human nature. It shows itself not merely in formal statements like the opening words of the Gospel, but in the language usual with him everywhere. And so here. Our Lord's miracles to him are simply and absolutely ἔργα , works only. But, as we have seen before, they are also divine works, "works of God." Still in Christ, according to John's view, they were perfectly natural. They were the necessary and direct result of that divine nature which in him was indissolubly united with his human nature. The last thing which the apostle would have thought about them was that they were miraculous, wonderful. That God should give his only- begotten Son to save the world was wonderful. That such a being should: ordinarily do works entirely beyond the limits of man's powers did not seem to John wonderful, and hence the simple yet deeply significant term by which he characterizes them.

Yet such works were not wrought without a purpose; nor did such a being come without having a definite object to justify his manifestation. If wisdom has to be justified of all her children, of all that she produces, there must be some end or purpose effected by each of them, and especially in one like Christ, confessedly the very highest manifestation of human nature, and, as we Christians believe, reaching high above its bounds. Now John points this out in calling our Lord's works σημεῖα , signs. It is devoutly to be hoped that in the revised translation of the New Testament this term will be restored to its place, instead of being mistranslated miracle, as in our present version. Really, in employing it, John was only following in the steps of the older Scriptures, and the unity of thought in the Bible is destroyed when the same word is translated differently in one book from its rendering in another. However wonderful may be God's works, they are not wrought simply to fill men with astonishment, and least of all are those so wrought which lie outside the ordinary course of God's natural laws.

The word σημεῖον , sign, tells us in the plainest language that these works were tokens calling the attention of men to what was then happening; and especially is it used in the Old Testament of some mark or signal confirming a promise or covenant. Such a sign (or mark) God gave to Cain in proof that his life was safe (Genesis 4:15). Such a sign (or token) was the rainbow to Noah, certifying him and mankind throughout all time that the world should not be again destroyed by water (Genesis 9:13). And here learn we incidentally that God's signs need not be miraculous. The laws of refraction probably were the same before as after the flood, and the fact of the rainbow being produced by the operation of natural laws does not make it a less fit symbol of a covenant between God and man relative to a great natural convulsion. So, again, circumcision was a sign (or token) of the covenant between God and the family of Abraham (Genesis 17:11). It was to recall the minds of the Israelites to the thought not merely that they stood in a covenant relation to God, but that that covenant implied personal purity and holiness. In the same way the Sabbath was a sign (Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12) of a peculiar relation between the Jew and his God.

But there are places where it distinctively means what we call a miracle. Thus Ahaz is told to ask a sign, and a choice is given him either of some meteor in the heavens, or of some appearance in the nether world: "Make it deep unto Hades, or high in the vault of heaven above" (Isaiah 7:11). And when the unbelieving king will ask, no sign, the prophet gives him that of the Immanuel, the virgin's son. So the sign unto Hezekiah of his recovery was the supernatural retrogression of the shadow upon the sundial of Ahaz, however significant it might also be of the hand of time having gone back as regards Hezekiah's own life (Isaiah 38:7). Elsewhere the divine foreknowledge is the sign (Exodus 3:12; Isaiah 37:30), and generally signs of God's more immediate presence with his people would either be prophecy (Psalms 74:9) or miracle (Psalms 105:27; Jeremiah 32:20; Daniel 4:2).

Very much more might be learned by a filler consideration of the manner in which the word sign is used in the Old Testament, but what is said above is enough to explain the reason why John so constantly used the term to express our Lord's miracles. The water changed into wine at Cana he calls "the beginning of signs" (John 2:11), and the healing of the centurion's son is "the second sign" (John 4:54), as being the first and second indications of Christ's wielding those powers which belong to God as the Creator and Author of nature, and which therefore pledged the God of nature, as the sole possessor of these powers, to the truth of any one's teaching who came armed with them (John 3:2, where again the Greek is signs). So he tells us that the people assembled at Jerusalem for the Passover believed Jesus "when they. saw the signs which he did" (John 2:23). It was, in fact, the very thing they had asked (Matthew 12:38; Matthew 16:1; John 2:18; John 6:30), and candid minds confessed that they were a sufficient ground for belief (John 6:14; John 7:31; John 9:16; John 12:18); in fact, they were wrought for that purpose (John 20:30-31), though men might and did refuse to accept them as proof conclusive of the Saviour's mission (John 11:47; John 12:37), and vulgar minds, saw in them nothing more than reason for astonishment (John 6:2; John 6:26). To them they were simply miracles-wonders.

A sign is more and means more than a miracle, for it does not stand alone, but is a token and indication of something else. Thus John's word shows that our Lord's works had a definite purpose. They were not wrought at random, but were intended for a special object. What this was is easy to tell. The Old Testament had always represented the Jews as holding a peculiar position towards the Godhead. They were a chosen people endowed with high privileges and blessings, but so endowed because they were also intended for a unique purpose. They were the depositaries of revelation, and in due time their Torah, their revealed law, was to go forth out of Zion (Isaiah 2:3) to lighten the whole Gentile world (Isaiah 42:6). This promise of a revelation extending to the whole world was further connected with the coming of a special descendant of Abraham (Genesis 22:18; Deuteronomy 18:15), and prophecy had gradually so filled up the outline that a complete sketch had been given of the person, the offices, the work, and the preaching of the great Son of David, to whose line the promise had subsequently been confined (Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; Hosea 3:8; Micah 5:2, etc.).

But how were people to know when he had come? The prophets had indeed given some indications of the time, especially Daniel (Daniel 9:24-27), and so clear were their words that all the world was expecting the arrival of some mighty being, in whom magnus ab integro sceclorrum nascitur ordo, and an entire transformation of the world should take place. But how, among many claimants, was he to be known? He might come, perhaps, as a conqueror, and by force of arms compel men to submit to his authority. But no! Prophecy had described him as the Prince of Peace; nor was his kingdom to be of this world, but a spiritual empire. Now, if we reflect for a little, we shall see that there is no obligation incumbent upon men to accept, or even examine, the claims of any and every one professing to be the bearer of a revelation from God. Before this duty arises, there must at least be something to call our attention to his claims. Mere self- assertion imposes no obligation upon others, unless it have something substantial to back it up. Life is a practical thing, with very onerous duties, and few, like the Athenians of old, have the taste or the leisure to listen to and examine everything new. The herald of a divine dispensation must have proof to offer that he does come from God, and such proof as pledges the divine attributes to the truth of his teaching. This is the reason why the Old-Testament dispensation was one of signs. On special occasions justifying the divine interference, and in the persons of its great teachers, the prophets, supernatural proof was given in two ways of God's presence with his messengers in a manner superior to and beyond his ordinary and providential presence in the affairs of life. The divine omniscience was pledged to the truth of their words by the prediction of future events and his omnipotence by their working things beyond the ordinary range of nature. The two Old Testament proofs of a revelation were prophecy and miracle. We can think of no others, and nothing less would suffice.

As we have said, the whole of the Old Testament looked forward to the manifestation of a divine person, in whom revelation would become, in the first place, perfect; in the second, universal; and, thirdly, final. As being a final revelation, prophecy, which was the distinctive element of the preparatory dispensation, holds in it no longer an essential place, though it is present in the New Testament in a subordinate degree. But miracle must, in the bearer of such a revelation, rise to its highest level; first because of the superiority of his office to that of the prophets. For he was himself the end of prophecy, the person for whose coming prophecy had prepared, and in whom all God's purposes of love towards mankind were to be fulfilled. The office of Christ as the bearer to mankind of God's final and complete message involves too much for us lightly to ascribe it to him. And no merely natural proof would suffice. We could not possibly believe what we believe of him had he wrought no miracles. We could not believe that he was the appointed Savior, to whom "all honor was given in heaven and earth" (Matthew 28:18), for man's redemption, if he had given no proof during the period of his manifestation on earth of being invested with extraordinary powers. But we go further than this. Perhaps no one would deny that the sole sufficient proof of such a religion as Christianity must be supernatural. We assert that no revealed religion whatsoever can be content with a less decided proof. The sole basis upon which a revelation can rest is the possession by the bearer of it of prophetic and miraculous powers.

For a revealed religion claims authority over us. If it be God's voice speaking to us, we have no choice but to obey. Our reason might not approve; our hearts and wills might detest what we were told; yet if we knew that it was God's voice, we must sadly and reluctantly submit to it. But it would be wrong in the highest degree to yield up ourselves to anything requiring such complete obedience unless we had satisfactory. proof that God really was its author. And no subjective proof could be satisfactory. The purity of the doctrines of Christianity, their agreement with the truths of natural religion, their ennobling effects upon our characters, and the way in which they enlighten the conscience all this and more shows that there is no impossibility in Christianity being a divine revelation: the perfectness of our Lord's character, the thoroughness with which. Christ's atonement answers to the deepest needs of the soul, the way in which Christianity rises above all religions of man's devising all this and more makes it probable that it is God's gift. But at most these considerations only prepare the mind to listen without prejudice to the direct and external proofs that Christianity is a revelation from God. The final proof must pledge God himself to its truth. But what are the divine attributes which would bear the most decisive witness? Surely those which most entirely transcend all human counterfeits omniscience and omnipotence. Now these are pledged to Christianity by prophecy and miracle.

The first had performed its office when Christ came. All men were musing in their hearts upon the expected coming of some Great One. His miracles, his works, the products of his powers, were the signs that prophecy was in course of fulfilment, The two must not be separated. Our Lord expressly declares that but for his works the Jews would have been right in rejecting him (John 15:24), His claims were too high for any less proof to have sufficed. But the nature of his works did put men under a moral obligation to inquire into his claims; and then he sent them to the Scriptures (John 5:39). The miracles were thus not the final proof of Christ's mission. Had they been such, we might have expected that they would still be from time to time vouchsafed, as occasion required, even to the end of the world. The agreement of Christ's life and death and teaching with what had been foretold of the Messiah is the leading proof of his mission, and, having this, we need miracles no more. Christ's works called men's attention to this proof, and made it a duty to examine it. They also exalt his person, and give him the authority of a messenger accredited from heaven; but the Old Testament remains for all ages the proper proof of the truth of the New. Miracles were signs for the times; prophecy is for all time, and as Christianity no longer requires anything especially to call men's attention to its claims, prophecy is proof enough that it is a message from God.

The more clearly to set this before our readers, we repeat that prediction was the distinctive sign of God's presence under the Old-Testament dispensation, and miracles subordinate. Revelation was then a growing light, and was ever advancing onward; and thus the prophets were ever preparing for the future. It was only on special occasions that miracle was needed. But when revelation became perfect and final in the person of One who, according to the terms of prophecy, transcended the bounds of human nature, it was necessary that miracle should rise in him to its highest level, both because of the dignity of his person, as one invested with all power, human and divine, and also as the proper proof at the time of his being the Son, the last and greatest therefore whom the Father could send; and, finally, to call the attention of men to his claims, and compel them to examine them. For this reason they were called signs. But as soon as the dispensation thus given could force. its claims on men's attention by other means, and its divine bounder had with drawn, miracles necessarily ceased, as being inconsistent with man's probation. Look over the. list of Scripture names for miracles, and ask what one would be appropriate now? Of what would they now be signs? Of what person would they be the proper faculties? For whom now would they be suitable works? The whole scriptural theory of miracles is contravened by the supposition of miracles being continued after Christianity had once been established. What history teaches us, namely, that they were rapidly withdrawn, is alone consistent with what we gather from Scripture concerning them.

They were an essential part of the proof at the time, and have an essential use now. For we could not believe what is taught us of Christ if he had not been accredited by miracles. But the proper evidence for the truth of Christianity now is that of prophecy, not as existing any longer in living force, but as manifested in the agreement of the long list of books forming the Old Testament with one another; and still more in the fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New. It is a proof in everybody's hands, and open to every one to examine. The proof of miracles requires, of course, large historical evidence, and not every one possesses bishop Stillingfleet's Origines Cause, or even Paley; but every Christian has his Bible, and in it will find the proper proof now of its truth.

Agreeably with this, dean Lyall, in his Propaedia Prophetica, has well remarked that the apostles "scarcely allude to Christ's miracles at all, and never in the way of proof (page 4). Miracles, he shows, now hold a disproportionate place in the argument from that assigned to them in the New Testament; and, in fact, it is very remarkable that Peter but twice refers in his speeches to Christ's miracles, and never but once to those wrought by himself. Paul, in his thirteen epistles, only thrice appeals to his own miraculous powers, and never mentions Christ's miracles, or even directly alludes to them. The key of this we have

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Miracles'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse: