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Reference: Miracles


Three distinct New Testament Greek words represent miracles: seemeion, "a sign"; teras, "a prodigy"; dunamis, "a mighty work." Septuagint uses seemeion and teras for Hebrew 'owt and mopheth (Ex 7:9). Seemeion, "sign," views the miracle as evidence of a divine commission: Joh 3:2, "no man can do these signs (Greek) which Thou doest except God be with him" (Joh 9:30,33; 15:24; Lu 7:19-22); teras, "prodigy" or "wonder," expresses the effect on the spectator; dunamis, "mighty work," marks its performance by a superhuman power (Ac 2:22; 2Co 12:12; 2Th 2:9). The "sign" is God's seal, attestation, or proof of a revelation being genuine. Jesus' miracles were not merely wonders but signs; signs not merely of His power, but of the nature of His ministry and of His divine person.

A grand distinction peculiar to Christianity is, it won the world to it in an age of high civilization, through a few preachers of humble position, on the evidence of miracles. Basing its claim on miracles the creed of the slave became eventually the faith of the Caesars. Muhammed on the contrary, even in a half-enlightened age and country, pretended no miracle. Christ and His apostles still less than Mahomet among friends would have dared to allege miracles, in the midst of hostile Jews and skeptical Romans, unless they were true. This claim is the more striking, since John the Baptist, though coming "in the spirit and power of Elias," the great miracle worker of the Old Testament, never claimed miraculous power; so far is Scripture from indiscriminately gratifying men's love of the marvelous at the cost of truth.

Similarly, Abraham, David, and other Old Testament heroes never appear as miracle workers. Early Christian writers, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen, occasionally appeal to miracles in proof of Christianity; but state that their pagan opponents, admitting the facts, attributed them to magic; which accounts for the fewness of their references to miracles. The Jewish writings, as the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu, also the extant fragments of Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, admit the fact of the miracles, though ascribing them to magic and evil spirits. In the case of the resurrection (Mt 28:11-15) and the cure of the blind man (John 9) the Jews made a self confuted charge of fraud. The early Christian apologists allege in support of Christianity:

(1) the greatness, number, completeness, and publicity of the miracles;

(2) the beneficial tendency of the doctrine;

(3) the connection of the miracles with prophecy and the whole scheme of redemption from Adam to Christ. The miracles must have been altogether different from the wonders of exorcists, magicians, etc.; else they would not have gained for the gospel so wide and permanent an acceptance. The effect of Philip's ministry on the Samaritans, in opposition to Simon Magus (Acts 8), proves this. The holy character of Christ and His apostles, and the tendency of Christianity to promote truth and virtue, are against the origination of the miracles from evil spirits or jugglery. In the fourth century miracles had ceased (Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 11-13); in the third, miracles are alleged, but are suspicious, as wrought among those already believing and predisposed to accept prodigies credulously. The ecclesiastical miracles are not attested by inspired writers. The apostles alone could transmit the power of working miracles to others. Cornelius was an exception, being the firstfruit of the Gentiles.

But Philip could not impart it; Peter and John must come to confer on his Samaritan converts miraculous gifts, by laying on of hands (Ac 8:15-20; 10:44-46; 19:6; Mr 16:17-18). Christianity being once proved and attested to us, the analogy of God's dealings leads us to expect He would leave it to make its way by ordinary means; the edifice being erected, the scaffolding is taken down; perpetual miracle is contrary to His ways. The ecclesiastical miracles alleged are ambiguous, or tentative, or legendary, i.e. resembling known products of human credulity and imposture. Many are childish, and palpably framed for superstitious believers, rather than as evidences capable of bearing critical scrutiny. Most of them are not told until long after their presumed occurrence. Herein the New Testament miracles wholly differ from them. The Christian miracles are:

(1) Recorded by contemporaries.

(2) In the same country.

(3) Not based on transient rumor, but confirmed by subsequent investigation, and recorded in independent accounts.

(4) Not naked history, but the history combined with the institution and with the religion of our day, as also with the time and place of the miracle recorded and of Christianity's origin.

(5) With particular specification of names, places, dates, and circumstances.

(6) Not requiring merely otiose assent, as the popular superstitions on which nothing depends, but claiming to regulate the opinions and acts of people.

(7) Not like popish miracles in Roman Catholic countries, in affirmation of opinions already formed, but performed amidst enemies, converting men from their most cherished prejudices; there was no anterior persuasion to lay hold of, Jesus' miracles gave birth to the sect; frauds might mix with the progress, but could not have place in the commencement of the religion.

(8) Not an imaginary perception, as Socrates' demon; the giving sight to the blind leaves a lasting effect; in those of a mixed nature the principal miracle is momentary, but some circumstance combined with it is permanent; Peter's vision might be a dream, but the message of Cornelius could not have been; the concurrence could only be supernatural.

(9) Not tentative, where out of many trials some succeed, as the ancient oracles, cures wrought by relics, etc.

(10) Not doubtful miracles, as the liquefaction of Januarius' blood, cures of nervous ailments.

(11) Not stories which can be resolved into exaggerations.

(12) Not gradual, but instantaneous for the most part (Lu 18:43); not incomplete; not merely temporary, but complete and lasting.

(13) Witnessed to at the cost of suffering and death. (Paley, Evidences of Christianity.)

A miracle is not a "violation of the laws of nature" (Hume), but the introduction of a new agent. Such introduction accords with human experience, for we see an intelligent agent often modifying the otherwise uniform laws of nature. "Experience" informs us of human free will counteracting the lower law of gravitation. Infinitely more can the divine will introduce a new element, counteracting, without destroying, lower physical law; the higher law for a time controls and suspends the action of the lower. Or, "law" being simply the expression of God's will, in miracles God's will intervenes, for certain moral ends, to suspend His ordinary mode of working. The wise men following the star, and then receiving further guidance from the Scripture word, illustrate the twofold revelation, God's works, and God's word, the highest guide. Both meet in the Incarnate Word (Matthew 2; 2Pe 1:19-21). As disturbance has entered the world by sin, as nature visibly attests, God must needs miraculously interfere to nullify that disturbance.

Hume alleged against miracles their contrariety to "experience," and that experience shows testimony to be often false. But "experience" is not to be limited to our time and knowledge. The "experience" of the witnesses for Christianity attests the truth of miracles. However improbable miracles are under ordinary circumstances, they are probable, nay necessary, to attest a religious revelation and a divine commission. "In whatever degree it is probable that a revelation should be communicated to mankind at all, in the same degree is it probable that miracles should be wrought" (Paley, Evidences of Christianity). That they are out of the ordinary course of nature, so far from being an objection, is just what they need to be in order to be fit signs to attest a revelation. It is as easy to God to continue the ordinary course of the rest of nature, with the change of one part, as of all the phenomena without any change. It is objected, miracles "interrupt the course of nature."

But as that course really compri

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1. The narratives

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No sincere believer in the inspiration of scripture can have a doubt as to real miracles having been wrought by the power of God both in O.T. and N.T. times. It is philosophy so-called, or scepticism, that mystifies the subject. Much is said about 'the laws of nature;' and it is confidently affirmed that these are irrevocable and cannot be departed from. To which is added that laws of nature previously unknown are frequently being discovered, and if our forefathers could witness the application of some of the more recent discoveries, as the computer, mobile telephone, etc., they would judge that miracles were being performed. So, it is argued, the actions recorded in scripture as miracles, were merely the bringing into use some law of nature which had been hidden up to that time.

All this is based upon a fallacy. There are no laws of nature, as if nature made its own laws: there are laws in nature, which God in His wisdom as Creator was pleased to make; but He who made those laws has surely the same power to suspend them when He pleases. Though laws in nature hitherto unknown are being discovered from time to time, they in no way account for such things as dead persons being raised to life, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, and demons being cast out of those who were possessed by them. Neither has natural philosophy discovered any law that will account for such a thing as an iron axe-head swimming in water. The simple truth is that God, for wise purposes, allowed some of the natural laws to be suspended, and at times He put forth His almighty power, as in supplying the Israelites with manna from heaven, and in feeding thousands from a few loaves and fishes, or by recalling life that had left the body.

The words translated 'miracle' in the O.T. are

1. oth, 'a sign,' as it is often translated, and in some places 'token.' Nu 14:22; De 11:3.

2. mopheth, 'a wonder,' as it is mostly translated: it is something out of the ordinary course of events. Ex 7:9; De 29:3.

3. pala, 'wonderful, marvellous.' Jg 6:13.

Moses was enabled to work miracles for two distinct objects. One was in order to convince the children of Israel that God had sent him. God gave him three signs to perform before them: his rod became a serpent, and was again a rod; his hand became leprous, and was then restored; and he could turn the water of the Nile into blood. Ex 4:1-9.

The other miracles, wrought by him in Egypt, were to show to Pharaoh the mighty power of God, who said, I will "multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt . . . . and the Egyptians shall know that I am Jehovah, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt." Ex 7:3-5. The ten plagues followed, which were miracles or signs of the power of God

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A miracle may be defined to be a plain and manifest exercise by a man, or by God at the call of a man, of those powers which belong only to the Creator and Lord of nature; and this for the declared object of attesting that a divine mission is given to that man. It is not, therefore, the wonder, the exception to common experience, that constitutes the miracle, as is assumed both in the popular use of the word and by most objectors against miracles. No phenomenon in nature, however unusual, no event in the course of God's providence, however unexpected, is a miracle unless it can be traced to the agency of man (including prayer under the term agency), and unless it be put forth as a proof of divine mission. Prodigies and special providences are not miracles. (A miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature. It is God's acting upon nature in a degree far beyond our powers, but the same king of act as our wills are continually exerting upon nature. We do not in lifting a stone interfere with any law of nature, but exert a higher force among the laws. Prof. Tyndall says that "science does assert that without a disturbance of natural law quite as serious as the stoppage of an eclipse, or the rolling of the St. Lawrence up the falls of Niagara, no act of humiliation, individual or nation, could call one shower from heaven." And yet men by firing cannon during battle can cause a shower: does that cause such a commotion among the laws of nature? The exertion of a will upon the laws does not make a disturbance of natural law; and a miracle is simply the exertion of God's will upon nature. --ED.) Again, the term "nature" suggests to many persons the idea of a great system of things endowed with powers and forces of its own --a sort of machine, set a-going originally by a first cause, but continuing its motions of itself. Hence we are apt to imagine that a change in the motion or operation of any part of it by God would produce the same disturbance of the other parts as such a change would be likely to produce in them if made by us or by any other natural agent. But if the motions and operations of material things be produced really by the divine will, then his choosing to change, for a special purpose, the ordinary motion of one part does not necessarily or probably imply his choosing to change the ordinary motions of other parts in a way not at all requisite for the accomplishment of that special purpose. It is as easy for him to continue the ordinary course of the rest, with the change of one part, as of all the phenomena without any change at all. Thus, though the stoppage of the motion of the earth in the ordinary course of nature would be attended with terrible convulsions, the stoppage of the earth miraculously, for a special purpose to be served by that only, would not of itself be followed by any such consequences. (Indeed, by the action of gravitation it could be stopped, as a stone thrown up is stopped, in less than two minutes, and yet so gently as not to stir the smallest feather or mote on its surface. --ED.) From the same conception of nature as a machine, we are apt to think of interferences with the ordinary course of nature as implying some imperfection in it. But it is manifest that this is a false analogy; for the reason why machines are made is to save us trouble; and, therefore, they are more perfect in proportion as they answer this purpose. But no one can seriously imagine that the universe is a machine for the purpose of saving trouble to the Almighty. Again, when miracles are described as "interferences with the law of nature," this description makes them appear improbable to many minds, from their not sufficiently considering that the laws of nature interfere with one another, and that we cannot get rid of "interferences" upon any hypothesis consistent with experience. The circumstances of the Christian miracles are utterly unlike those of any pretended instances of magical wonders. This difference consists in -- (1) The greatness, number, completeness and publicity of the miracles. (2) In the character of the miracles. They were all beneficial, helpful, instructive, and worthy of God as their author. (3) The natural beneficial tendency of the doctrine they attested. (4) The connection of them with a whole scheme of revelation extending from the origin of the human race to the time of Christ.


MIRACLES. 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

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