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inferior to himself in acuteness, and who, supported
by the goodness of his cause, has gained a triumphant
victory. I consider this dissertation as a standard
book for students of divinity. You will find in it
accurate reasoning, and much information upon the
whole subject of miracles, and, in particular, a
thorough investigation of the question which I have
now stated.

It is not true that our belief in testimony rests
wholly upon experience ; for, as every man has a
principle of veracity Avhich leads him to sjieak truth,
unless his mind be under some particular wrong bias,
so we are led, by the consciousness of this i)rinciple,
and by the analogy which we suppose to exist be-
tween our own mind and the mind of others, to believe
that they also speak the truth, until we learn by ex-
I)erience that they mean to deceive us. It is not ac-
curate to state the firm and unalterable experience
which is said to establish the laws of nature as some-
what distinct from testimony ; for since the observa-
tions of any individual are much too limited to ena-
ble him to judge of the uniformity of nature, the
word experience, in the sense in which it is used in
this proposition, presupposes a faith in testimony,
for it comprehends the observations of others com-
numicated to us through that channel. It is not true
that a firm and unalterable experience hath establish-


ed the laws of nature, because the histories of all
countries are filled with accounts of deviations from

These are objections to the principles of Mr.
Hume's argument, which his subtle antagonist brings
forward, and presses with much force. But, inde-
pendently of these inferior points, lie has shown that
the argument itself is a fallacy ; and the sophism
lies here. Experience vouches that which is past ;
but, if the word has any meaning, experience does
not vouch that which is future. Our judgment of
the future is an inference which we draw from the
reports of experience concerning the past : the re-
ports may be true, and yet our inference may be
false. Thus experience declares that it is not agree-
able to the usual course of nature for the dead to rise.
Suppose twelve men to declare that the dead do usu-
ally arise, there would be proof against proof ; a par-
ticular testimony set against our own personal ob-
servations, and against all the reports and observa-
tions of others which we had collected upon that sub-
ject. But suppose twelve men to declare that one
dead man did arise, here is no opposition between the
reports of experience and their testimony ; for it does
not fall within the province of experience to declare
that it is impossible for the dead to rise, or that the
usual course of nature in this matter shall never be
departed from. We may hastily draw such inference
from the reports of experience. But the inference
is our own : we have taken too wide a step in mak-
ing it ; and it is a sophism to say, that because ex-
perience vouches the premises, experience vouches
also that conclusion which is drawn from them mere-
ly by a defect in our mode of reasoning.


When witnesses tlien attest miracles, experience
and testimony do not contradict one another. Ex-
perience declares that such events do not usually
ha23pen : testimony declares that they have happen-
ed in that instance. Each makes its own report,
and the reports of both may be true. Instances
somewhat similar occur in other cases. Unusual
events, extraordinary phenomena in nature, strange
revolutions in politics, uncommon efforts of genius
or of memory, are all received upon testimony.
Magnetism, electricity, and galvanism are opposite
to the properties of matter formerly known. Yet
many who never saw these new powers exerted,
give credit to the reports of the experiments that
have been made. Experience indeed begets a pre-
sumption with regard to the future. We are dis-
posed to believe that the facts which have been uni-
formly observed will recur in similar circumstances ;
and we act upon this presumption. But as new si-
tuations may occur, in which a difference of circum-
stances produces a difference in the event, and as we
do not pretend to be acquainted with all the circum-
stances which discriminate every new case, this pre-
sumption is overturned by credible testimony relat-
ing facts different from those which have been ob-
served. Without the presumption suggested by ex-
perience, we should live in perpetual amazement ;
without the credit given to testimony, we should of-
ten remain ignorant, and be exposed to danger. By
the one, we accommodate our conduct to the general
uniformity of events ; by the other, we are apprized
of new facts which sometimes arise. The provision
made for us by the Author of our nature is in this


way comi)lete, and we are prepared for our ^^'llole

There does not appear, then, to be any foundation
for saying that a miracle is, from its nature, in-
capable of being proved by testimony. As nothing-
can hinder the Author of nature from changing the
order of nature whensoever he sees meet, and as one
very important purpose in his government is most
effectually promoted by employing, at particular sea-
sons, the ministry of men to change this order, a mi-
racle is always a possible event, and becomes, in cer-
tain circumstances, not improbable. Like every other
possible fact, therefore, it may be communicated to
such as have not seen it by the testimony of such as
have. It is natural indeed, to weigh very scrupu-
lously the testimony of a miracle, because testimony
has in this case to encounter that presumption a-
gainst the fact which is suggested by experience.
The person who relates it may, from ignorance, mis-
take an unusual apj)lication of the laws of nature for
a suspension of them ; an exercise of superior skill
and dexterity for a work beyond the power of man ;
or he may be disposed to amuse himself, and to pro-
mote some private end by ovir credulity. Accord-
ingly, we do not receive any extraordinary fact in
common life upon the credit of every man whom we
chance to meet. We attend to the character and the
manner of the reporter ; we lay together the several
parts of his report, and we call in every circumstance
which may assist us in judging whether he is speak-
ing the truth. The more extraordinary and import-
ant the fact be, there is the more reason for this cau-
tion ; and it is especially proper, in examining the
reports of those facts which deserve the name of mi-


racles, /. e. works contrary to the course of nature,
said to be performed by man, as the evidences of an
extraordinary revelation.

2. We are thus led to the second question which I
stated, Whether the testimony borne to the miracles
of Jesus was credible ?

The Ajjostles were chosen by Jesus to be witness-
es to the uttermost parts of the earth of all things
which he did, both in the land of the Jews and in Je-
rusalem, and of his resurrection from the dead. This
was the commission which they received from him
immediately before his ascension, the character un-
der which they appeared before the Jewish council,
and the office which they assume in their writings.
It is not my business to spread out the circumstances
which render theirs a credible testimony, and give to
each its proper colouring. It is enough for me to
mention the sources of argument.

In judging of the credibility of this testimony, you
are led back to that branch of the internal evidence
of Christianity which arises from the character of
the Apostles, as it appears in their writings — in their
unblemished conduct, and distinguished virtues — in
that soundness of understanding, and calmness of
temper which are opposite to enthusiasm, — and in
those simple, artless manners which are most unlike
to imposture. You are further to observe, that their
relation of the miracles of Jesus consists of palpable
facts, which were the objects of sense. The power
by which a man born blind received his sight was
invisible ; but that the man was born blind might be
learned with certainty from his parents or neigh-
bours : and that, by obeying a simple command of
Jesus, he recovered his sight, was manifest to every


spectator. The power which raised a dead man was
invisible ; but that Jesus and his disciples met a large
company carrying forth a young man to his burial —
that this young man was known to his friends, and
believed by all the company to be truly dead, and
that upon Jesus' coming to the bier, and bidding him
arise, he sat up and began to speak ; all these are
points which it did not require superior learning or
sagacity to discern, but concerning which, any per-
son in the exercise of his senses, who was present
and who bestowed an ordinary degree of attention,
could not be mistaken. The case is the same with
the other miracles. We are not required to rest up-
on the judgment of the Apostles — upon their ac-
quaintance with physical causes, for the miraculous
nature of the works which Jesus did ; for they give
us simply the facts which they saw, and leave us to
make the inference for ourselves. There is no am-
plification in their manner of recording the miracles,
no attempt to excite our wonder, no exclamation of
surprise upon their part ; they relate the most mar-
vellous exertions of their Master's power with the
same calmness as ordinary facts ; they sometimes
mention the feelings of joy and admiration which
were uttered by the other spectators ; they hardly
ever express their own.

This temperance with which the Apostles speak,
of all that Jesus did, gives every reader a security in
receiving their report, which he would not have felt,
had the narration been turgid. Yet he cannot enter-
tain any doubt of their being convinced that the
, works of Jesus were truly miraculous ; for by these
works they were attached to a stranger. While they
lived in honest obscurity, an extraordinary personage


appeared in their country, and called upon them to
follow him. They left their occupations and their
homes, and continued for some years the witnesses
of all that he did. They were Jews, and had those
feelings which have ever distinguished the sons of
Abraham with regard to the national religion. Their
education, instead of enlarging their views, had con-
firmed their prejudices. Yet they were converted :
with every thing else, they forsook their religion,
and joined a man who was the author of a system
which professed to supersede the law of Moses.
They received him as the promised Messiah. But,
possessed with the fond hopes of the Jewish nation,
they believed that he was a temporal prince, come to
restore the kingdom to Israel, and to make the Jews
masters of the world. They were undeceived. Yet
this disappointment did not shake their faith. Al-
though they had followed Jesus in the expectation of
being the ministers and favourites of an earthly
prince, they were content to remain, during his life,
the wandering attendants of a man who had " not
where to lay his head ;" and they appeared in public,
after his departure from the earth, as his disciples.
The body of the Jewish people, attached to the law
of Moses, regarded them as traitors to their nation.
To the priests and rulers, whose influence depended
upon the established faith, they were peculiarly ob-
noxious. That civil power with which the spirit of
the Jewish religion had invested its ministers, was
directed against the apostles of Jesus : and without
any attempt to disprove the facts which they assert-
ed, every effort was made to silence them by force.
They were imprisoned and called before the most
august tribunal of the state. There the high priest.


armed with all tlie dignity and authority of his sacred
office, commanded them not to preach any more in
the name of Jesus. Yet these men, educated in ser-
vile dread of the higher powers, with the prospect of
instant punishment before their eyes, declared that
they would obey God rather than man. Their con-
duct corresponded to this heroic declaration. Al-
though exposed to the fury of the populace and the
vengeance of the rulers, they continued in the words
of truth and soberness to execute their commission ;
and they sealed their testimony with their blood ;
martyrs, not to speculative opinions in which they
might be mistaken, but to facts which they declared
they had seen and heard, which they said they were
commanded to publish, and which no threatening or
punishment could make them either deny or conceal.
The history of mankind has not preserved a testi-
mony so complete and satisfying as that which I
have now stated. If, in conformity to the exhibi-
tions which the writings of these men give of their
character, you suppose their testimony to be true,
then you can give the most natural account of every
part of their conduct, of their conversion, their sted-
fastness, and their heroism. But if notwithstand-
ing every appearance of truth you suppose their
testimony to be false, inexplicable circumstances and
glaring absurdities crowd upon you. You must sup-
pose that twelve men of mean birth, of no educa-
tion, living in that humble station which placed am-
bitious views out of their reach and far from their
thoughts, without any aid from the state, formed
the noblest scheme that ever entered into the mind
of man, adopted the most daring means of executing
that scheme, and conducted it with such address as


to conceal the imposture under the semblance of sim-
plicity and virtue. You must suppose that men
guilty of blasphemy and falsehood united in an at-
tempt the best contrived, and which has in fact
proved the most successful, for making the world
virtuous ; that they formed this singular enterprise
without seeking any advantage to themselves, with
an avowed contempt of honour and profit, and with
the certain expectation of scorn and persecution ;
that, although conscious of one another's villainy,
none of them ever thought of providing for his own
security by disclosing the fraud ; but that, amidst
sufferings the most grievous to flesh and blood, they
persevered in their conspiracy to cheat the world
into piety, honesty, and benevolence.

They who can swallow such suppositions have no
title to object to miracles. They should remember
that there is a moral as well as a physical order ;
that there are certain general principles by which
human actions are regulated, and upon which we
are accustomed to proceed in our judgments of the
conduct of men ; and that it is much more difficult
to conceive that, in opposition to those principles
which analogy and experience have established, such
a testimony as the apostles uttered should be false,
than that the laws of nature in some particular in-
stances should have been suspended. Of the sus-
pension of the laws of nature we can give a rational
account : the purpose for which it is said to have
been made renders it not incredible. But the false-
hood of testimony in such circumstances would be a
phenomenon in the history of the human mind so
strange and inexplicable, that we need not be afraid
to apply to this case the words of Mr. Hume, al-


though he certainly did not mean them to be so ap-
plied : " No testimony is sufficient to establish a
miracle, iinless the testimony be of such a kind, that
its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact
which it endeavours to establish." The falsehood of
the testimony of the apostles would be more mira-
culous, /'. e. it is more improbable than any fact
which they attest.

3. But although the testimony of the apostles ap-
pears, upon all the principles according to which we
judge of such matters, to have been credible at the
time when it was given, it remains to be inquired,
whether the distance at which we live from that
time does, in any material degree, impair to us its
original credibility.

It is allowed that the testimony of the apostles
received the strongest confirmation from its having
been emitted immediately after the ascension of Je-
sus, in the very place where they said he had per-
formed many of his mighty works, under the eye of
that government which had persecuted him, and in
presence of multitudes to whom they appealed as
witnesses of what they declared. This must be al-
lowed by all who are qualified to judge of evidence.
Now let it be remembered that the benefit of this
confirmation is not lost to us, because, although their
testimony was at first oral, given in their preaching
to those whom they converted, it was soon recorded
in books which we receive upon satisfying evidence
as authentic and genuine. There is therefore no
j'oom to allege in disparagement of this testimony,
the inaccuracy of verbal reports, or the natural dis-
position to exaggerate in the repetition of every ex-
traordinary event. We are put in possession of the


facts as they were published in the lifetime of the
apostles, without the embellishments of succeeding
ages ; and every circumstance which moved those
who heard their testimony, is preserved in their
books to establish our faith.

The early publication of the Gospels and Acts is
to us an unquestionable voucher of the following
most important facts, — that the miracles of our Lord
and his apostles were not done in a corner before a
few select friends, and by them artfully spread
through the world, but were performed openly, in
the fields, in the city, in the temple, before enemies
who had every opportunity of examining them, who
did not regard them with indifference, who were
alarmed with the effect which they produced upon
the minds of the people, and were zealous in bring-
ing forward every objection. Had any one of these
circumstances been false, the early publication of
books asserting them would have overturned the
scheme. Further, there is much particularity in the
narration of many of the miracles : reference is made
to time and place ; many local circumstances are in-
troduced ; persons are marked out, not only by their
distress, but by their rank and their names ; the emo-
tions of the spectators, the joy of those who received
deliverance, the consultations held by rulers, and the
public orders in consequence of certain miracles, all
enter into the record of these books. While every
intelligent reader discerns in this j^articular detail
the most accurate acquaintance with the prejudices
and the manners of the times, and is from thence
satisfied that the books are authentic, he must also
be satisfied that a detail which, by its particularity,
called so much attention, and admitted, at the time


it was published, of so easy investigation, is itself a
voucher of its own truth. Again, the history of the
miracles is so closely interwoven with the rest of the
narration, that any man who reads it may be satis-
fied that it could not have been inserted after the
books were published. There are numberless allu-
sions to the miracles even in those passages where
none of them are recorded ; the faith of the first dis-
ciples is said to have been founded upon them, and
tlie change upon their sentiments is truly inexplica-
ble, unless we suppose the miracles to have been
done in their presence. All, therefore, who received
the Gospels and the Acts in early times, when they
could easily examine the truth of the facts, may be
considered as setting their seal to the miracles of
Jesus and his apostles ; and the number of the first
converts out of Judea and Jerusalem forms, in this
way, a cloud of witnesses.

That confirmation of the testimony of the apostles,
which appears to be implied in the faith of all the
first Christians, is rendered much more striking, by
the peculiar nature of a large part of the New Tes-
tament. I mean the epistles to the different churches.
Paul, in several of the epistles which he sent by par-
ticular messengers to those whose names they bear,
and which were authenticated to the whole Christian
world by his superscription, mentions the miracles
which he had performed, the effect M^iich his mira-
cles had produced, and the extraordinary powers
M^hich he had imparted. A large portion of the first
Epistle to the Corinthians is occupied with a dis-
course concerning spiritual gifts, in which he speaks
of them as common in that church, as abused by
many who possessed them, and as inferior in excel-


leiice to moral virtue. In his first Epistle to the
Thessalonians, which is known to have been the ear-
liest of the apostolical writings, Paul says, " Our
Gospel came to you not in word only, but in power
and in the Holy Ghost ; and they, /. e. your own
citizens, in their progress through different parts of
the world, show of us what manner of entering in
we had unto you, and how ye turned from idols to
serve the living God." * Here is a letter written
not twenty years after the ascension of Jesus, sent
as soon as it was written to the church of Thessalo-
nica to be read there, and in the neighbouring
churches, copied and circulated by those to whom it
was addressed, uniformly quoted since that time by
the succession of Christian writers, and come down
to us with every evidence that can be desired, indeed
without any dispute of its being a genuine letter. In
this letter the apostle tells the Thessalonians that
they had been converted to the Gospel by the mira-
cles of those who preached it, and that the effect
which this conversion had produced upon their con-
duct was talked of everywhere. If these facts had
not been known to the Thessalonians, the letter
would have been instantly rejected, and the charac-
ter of him who wrote it would have sunk into con-
tempt. Its being publicly read, held in/ veneration,
and transmitted by them, is a proof that every thing
said in it concerning themselves is true, and there-
fore it is a proof that those who could not be mis-
taken, believed in the miracles of the apostles of our
Lord. This argument is handled by Butler, and all
the ablest defenders of our religion ; and I have been

* 1 ThesR. i. 5, 9.,


led to state it particularly, because it has always ap-
peared to me an unanswerable argument, arising out
of the books themselves, a confirmation of the testi-
mony of the apostles that is independent of their per-
sonal character, and yet is demonstrative of the esti-
mation in which they were held by their contempo-
raries, and of the credit which we may safely give to
their report.

4. It only remains to be added upon this question,
that a testimony thus strongly confirmed is not con-
tradicted by any opposite testimony. The books of
the New Testament are full of concessions made by
the adversaries of Christianity ; concessions, the force
of which must be admitted by all who believe the
books to be authentic : and it is very remarkable,
that concessions of exactly the same kind with those
made by the Jews in our Saviour's days, were made
by the zealous and learned adversaries of our faith
in the first four centuries. Celsus, Porphyry, Hiero-
cles, and Julian did not deny the facts ; they only at-
tempted to disparage them, or to ascribe them to magic.
Julian was emperor of Rome in the fourth century.
He had renounced Christianity, and his zeal to revive
the ancient heathen worship made him the bitterest
enemy of a system which condemned all the forms of
idolatry. Yet this man, with every wish to overturn
the establishment which Christianity had received
from Constantine, does not pretend to say in his work
against the Christians, that no miracles were per-
formed by Jesus. In one place he says, '•' Jesus, who
rebuked the winds, and walked on the seas, and cast
out daemons, and as you will have it, made the hea-
vens and the earth." In another place, " Jesus has
been celebrated about three hundred years, having


(lone nothing in his lifetime worthy of remembrance,
unless any one thinks it a mighty matter to heal
lame and blind people, and exorcise dsemoniacs in
the villages of Bethsaida and Bethany."* The pre-
judices of the emperor led him to speak slightingly
of the miracles ; but the facts are admitted by him.
It was reserved for infidels at the distance of seven-
teen hundred years from the event, to dispute a tes-

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 32)