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timony which had appeared satisfying to those who
heard it, and which had not received any contradic-
tion in the succession of ages. Because they did not
believe in magic, and saw the futility of that account
of the works of Jesus which the prejudices of the
times had drawn from their predecessors in infideli-
ty, they have taken a new ground, and they affirm,
against the principles of human nature, against the
faith of history, and the concessions of the earliest
adversaries, that the works never were done. But
Christianity has nothing to fear from any change in
the mode of attack. Sound philosophy will always
furnish weapons sufficient to repel the aggressor;
and the truth will be the more firmly established by
every display of the mutability of error.

It appears then, that even that part of the exter-
nal evidence of Christianity, which from its nature
is the most likely to be affected by length of time, is
not evanescent ; that various circumstances preserve
it from diminution ; and that we, in these latter ages,
may certainly know the truth of the testimony borne
by those who declare in the books of the New Testa-
ment that which they saw and heard.

* Lardner's Heath. Test. ch. xlvi.



The subject would now be exhausted if the only
miracles recorded in history were those to which
Jesus and his Apostles made their aiDpeal. This sin-
gular attestation, given upon so important an occa-
sion, would then appear a decisive mark of the inter-
position of the Almighty ; and every person who be-
lieves the books of the New Testament to be au-
thentic, might be expected to join in the opinion of
Nicodemus, who said to Jesus, " We know that thou
^rt a teacher come from God ; for no man can do
these miracles that thou dost, except God be with
him." * But the subject is involved in new difficul-
ties, and assumes a much more complicated form,
when we recollect that accounts of prodigies and mi-
racles abound in all history, that these miracles are
generally connected with the religion of the country
in which the record of them is preserved, and that,
■as the religions of different countries are widely dif-
ferent, the miracles of one country appear to contra-
dict the miracles of another. If it be said that all
the reports of mii*acles, excepting those recorded in
the scriptures, are false, then it follows that there
must be a facility of imposition in this matter against
which the human mind has never been jDroof. If
some other reports of miracles, besides those in scrip-
ture, are admitted to be true, then it seems to follow,
that miracles are not the unequivocal mark of a di-
vine commission.

* John iii. 2.


This multitude of reports coueerning miracles has
afforded much triumi)h to the adversaries of Christi-
anity, and, in the oi)inion of Mr. Hume, the autho-
rity of any testimony concerning a religious miracle
is so much diminished by the ridiculous stories, and
the gross impositions of the same kind in all ages,
that men of sense should lay down a general resolu-
tion to reject it without any examination. The zeal
with which he writes, has led him to recommend a
resolution very unbecoming a philosopher. At the
same time, it must be allowed that, upon the one
hand, the prejudice arising from the multitude of
false miracles which have been reported and believ-
ed, and, upon the other hand, the suspicion that out
of the number preserved in ancient history, some
jnay have been real miracles, furnish a very plausi-
ble objection against this branch of the external evi-
dence of Christianity ; an objection which every per-
son wiiose business it is to defend the truth of our
religion must be prepared to meet ; and an objection
which there is the more reason for studying with
care, because the attempts to answer it have not al-
ways been conducted with sufficient ability and pru-
dence, and some zealous champions for Christianity
have mistaken the ground which ought to be main-
tained in repelling this attack.

The four observations which follow, appear to me
to embrace the leading points in this controversy, and
when properly extended by reading and reflection,
will be found sufficient to remove the objection aris-
ing from the multitude of miracles mentioned in his-

1. No religion, except the Jewish and Christian,
which, by every person who understands the Gospel,



are accounted one religion, — no other religion that
we know of, claimed to be received upon the footing
of miracles performed by its author.

Some of the ancient lawgivers said, that they had
private conferences v/ith the Deity, in which the sys-
tem of religious or civil polity, which they establish-
ed, was communicated to them. But none of them
pretended to produce, in the presence of the people,
changes upon the order of nature. The Pagan my-
thology was much more ancient than any record of
miracles in profane history. Many of tbe achieve-
ments of the gods run back into those j^eriods of
which there is no history that is not accounted fabu-
lous ; — some are known to the learned to be an alle-
gorical method of conveying moral or physical truth ;
and others are merely the colouring which fable and
poetry gave to the transactions of a remote antiquity
handed down by oral tradition. The miracles re-
corded in the times of authentic history coincided
with a superstition already established, the influence
of which prepared the minds of men for receiving
them. They were performed by priests, or men of
rank, to whom the people were accustomed to look
up with reverence ; generally in temples consecrated
by the offerings of ages, where it was impious for the
eye of the worshippers to pry too closely ; under the
protection of civil government ; and in support of a
system which antiquity had hallowed, and which the
law commanded the citizens to respect. The miracles
of the Gospel, on the other hand, were performed by
obscure despised men, in the midst of enemies, as the
vouchers of a new doctrine which was accounted an
insult to the gods, and which did not flatter the pas-
sions of men. It is manifest that the cases are wide-


iy different ; and before proceeding to any particular
examination of the heathen miracles, you are war-
ranted in considering the whole multitude of them
as clearly discriminated from the miracles recorded
in Scripture, by this circumstance, that they were
not wrought for the purpose of procuring credit to a
new system of faith. In the seventh century, Maho-
met appeared in Arabia, calling himself the chief of
the prophets of God, sent to extirpate idolatiy, and
to establish a new and perfect religion. He acknow-
ledged the divine mission both of Moses and of Je-
sus. He often mentions the evident miracles which
Jesus wrought, and he has preserved the names of
the persons whom our Lord raised from the dead.
Those who opposed him demanded a sign of his mis-
sion. He gave various reasons for not complying
with this demand, and in different places of the Ko-
ran appears solicitous to obviate the doubts which
his refusal excited. But although his reasons were
not satisfying, and he was harassed with importu-
nity, — although he lived amongst a barbarous un-
learned people, and although he possessed a very un-
common share of ability and address, he had the
prudence never to make the experiment of working
a miracle, and he confesses that God, in his sove-
reignty, had withheld from him that power. The
Church of Rome claims the power which Mahomet
did not assume, and the history of that Church is
full of wonders said to be performed at the shrines
of saints and martyrs, by the divine virtue residing
in a relic, or by the power committed to a religious
order, to a particular sect, or to the whole Church.
But all these are in support of a system already esta-
blished, and in conformity to the wishes and ex-


pectations of the spectators ; and, like the heathen
miracles, they extend the prevailing superstition by
introducing or confirming doctrines, rites, and prac-
tices, exactly similar to those which had been for-
merly received.

It appears, then, from this review, that the his-
tory of the world does not present, out of that mul-
titude of miracles which it has recorded, any that
were performed under the disadvantages which at-
tended the Christian, for the purpose of introducing
a change upon the religious sentiments of mankind.
All the rest were aided by the prevailing opinions ;
these alone were opposed by them : all the rest found
men ready to believe ; these alone produced a new

2. As the circumstance which I have mentioned
forms, upon a general vievt^ of the matter, a clear
discrimination of the miracles of the Bible, so, when
we enter upon a j^articular examination, there ap-
pears to be the most striking difference between them
and all other miracles, in the evidence with which
they are transmitted. The testimony for a mira-
cle requires to be tried with caution, because it con-
tradicts the presumption suggested by experience ;
and the more instances there are of imposition or
mistake in reports of this kind, there is the more
reason for weighing every report Avith the most scru-
pulous exactness. When we jiroved the testimony
borne by the apostles to the miracles of Jesus, we
found a multitude of circumstances which conspire
to render it credible. But when we try, by the same
standard of sound criticism, the testimony borne ei-
ther to heathen or to popish miracles, it is found to
he very much A^antiiig. Many of the heathen mira-


cles were prodigies which had no connexion witli any
religious system, or they were phenomena which ap-
peared wonderful to ignorant men, hut which a more
enlarged acquaintance with nature has enahled us
to explain. Others were extraordinary works, re-
corded long after the time when they are said to
have been performed, and recorded by historians
who, while they adoi'ii their writings with popular
stories, are careful to distinguish the narration,
which they consider as authentic, from the reports
which they retail, because they received them. The
miracles which Tacitus reports as performed by the
Emperor Vespasian, the feats of Alexander of Pon-
tus, which we learn from Lucian, who represents
him as an impostor, and the works ascribed to Apol-
lonius of Tyana, whori some of the later Platonists
are said to have raised up as a rival to our Lord, —
all these have been examined by men of learning
and judgment; and the most zealous friend of Christ-
ianity could not wish for a more favourable display
of the unexceptionable testimony upon which its
miracles are received, than is obtained by contrast-
ing it with the air of falsehood which runs through
ail these accounts.

Mr. Hume has been solicitous to place the evi-
dence of some popish miracles in the most advanta-
geous light, and he has collected, with an air of tri-
umph, various circumstances which conspired to at-
test the miracles said to be performed about the be-
ginning of the last century, in the church-yard of St.
Medard, at the tomb of Abbe Paris. But althouo-h
a particular purpose induced him to assume the ap-
pearance of an advocate for these miracles, yet the
imposture was manifest at the time to many who



lived upon the spot, and it has since that time been
completely exposed in several treatises. In Camp-
bell's Dissertation, in the Criterion by Dr. Douglas
late bishop of Salisbury, in Macknight's Truth of the
Gospel History, and in other books, there is an in-
vestigation of many pretended miracles ; and I be-
lieve it will be acknowledged, without hesitation,
that Dr. Campbell and Dr. Douglas have clearly
shown, with regard to all the miracles to which their
investigation extends, either that the accounts of
them, from the circumstances, appear to be false, or
that the facts, from their nature, are not miraculous.
I am inclined to think that, as far as this investiga-
tion can be carried, it will be found uniformly to ap-
ply to the miracles recorded in heathen story, or in
popish legends ; and that, as a person who has been
accustomed to read much history and much fable,
is at no loss to distinguish the one from the other
when they are presented to him, so any one who
duly considers the circumstances of the case, will
most readily discriminate the precise assured tes-
timony of miracles wrought by Jesus as a divine
teacher, which eye-witnesses submitted at the very
time and place to the examination of their enemies,
from the hesitating, suspicious record of wonders
said to be performed for some insignificant purpose,
which the historians did not see, or which the rank
and characters of the person to whom they are as-
cribed, preserved from the scrutiny even of those
who saw them. The evidence of the miracles of the
Gospel, far from being diminished by the mmiber of
impostures, is very much illustrated by this contrast.
Men, indeed, cannot perceive the difference without
an exercise of understanding. They are required


liere, as upon every other subject, to separate truth
from falsehood, to " prove all things, and to hold
fast that which is good." * Extensive information
and enlightened criticism are called in to be the
handmaids of religion ; and the continued increase of
human knowledge, instead of giving Christians any-
reasonable ground of apprehending danger, enables
them to defend the principles which they have em-
braced, dissipates objections which might occur to
the ignorant, and establishes the faith of those who

I said, I am inclined to think, that if the investi-
gation of which Dr. Douglas and Dr. Campbell have
given a specimen, were extended farther, it would
be found to apply uniformly to the miracles recorded
in heathen story or in popish legends. I used this
guarded expression, because I do not consider any
man as warranted to say, before he has examined
them, that all apparent miracles, excepting those re-
corded in the Bible, may be accounted for by the
dexterity of an impostor, or by the carelessness or ig-
norance of the spectators.

3. And, therefore, my third observation is, that
although we should ascribe some of the extraordi-
nary works recorded in history to the agency of evil
spirits, the argument from miracles, for the truth of
Christianity, is not impaired.

They who can satisfy their minds that such works
are not miraculous, or that the accounts of them are
false, leave the argument from miracles entire to
Judaism and Christianity. They who cannot satisfy
their minds in this manner, and who judge from the

* 1 Thess. V. 21.


nature of the works, or the purpose which they pro-
mote, that they did not proceed from God, are led by
their principles to ascribe them to some intermediate
beings between God and man. But this system, as
we have been taught by our Lord to reason,* does
not affect the argument from miracles. For thus
stands the case : The orders of intermediate beings
are wholly unknown to human reason. There may
be good, and there may be bad spirits, and their
measure of power may be more, or it may be less.
But as we infer from all the appearances of nature,
and especially from the constitution of our own
minds, that this world is not the work of an evil
being, so having found that the nature of the revela-
tion contained in the New Testament affords a very
strong presumption of its coming from God, we can-
not suppose that the miracles, which are the direct
proof of this presumption, and which actually were
the means of establishing the Gospel, came from an
evil being. The conduct of the adversary of man-
kind was indeed very opposite to the cunning which
is ascribed to him, if he gave his sanction to the
man who was manifested to destroy the works of
the devil, and employed his power to undermine his
own kingdom, and put an end to his own malicious
joy. As far, then, as the argument from miracles
for the truth of Christianity is concerned, the power
of evil spirits is merely a speculative point, upon
which, as upon many other speculative points con-
cerning which our information is imperfect, different
opinions may be held without any injury to the
truth. Whatever system we adopt with regard to the

* Matt. chap. xii.


j)ower of Satan, howsoever evil si>irits may be sup-
posed to have acted at other times, we are as certain
as the nature of the thing can make us, that their
power was not exerted in the establishment of our
faith, and we rest in the miracles of Jesus as wrought
by the finger of God.

But, although speculations concerning the power
of evil spirits are in no degree necessary to a ration-
al belief of Christianity, yet they will naturally fall
in your way, when you are investigating the argu-
ment from miracles, and you ought not to be stran-
gers to the grounds upon which the different opi-
nions rest. It has been said, that God alone can work
miracles, because the sovereign of the universe never
will permit any evil spirit to encroach so far upon
the prerogative of his majesty, as to produce any
work contrary to the order of nature. This oj)inion
seems to present the most honourable view of the
Almighty ; it professes to afford security against
many delusions, which, according to other systems,
are practicable ; it leaves the argument from miracles
clear and unembarrassed, and it has been supported
by much ingenious reasoning. But it appears to me
presumptuous, because it assumes more, and j^i'o-
nounces with a more decisive tone concerning the
conduct of the divine government, than is competent
to our ignorance. It contradicts the obvious inter-
pretation of several passages of scripture, and the
attempts to give those passages a meaning not incon-
sistent with it, have tortured scripture in a manner
which is not justifiable. It has been said, on the
other hand, that evil spirits have been accustomed,
in all ages, to exercise their power in astonishing,
deluding, and misleading the minds of men ; that


all false religions have been supported by their in-
fluence, and that they are continually busied in cor-
rupting true religion. Even the able and profound
Cudworth represents it as unquestionable, that Apol-
lonius of Tyana was made choice of by the policy,
and assisted by the powers of the kingdom of dark-
ness, for the doing some things extraordinary, in or-
der to derogate from the miracles of our Saviour, and
enable Paganism to bear up against the attacks of
Christianity. When the matter is thus stated, a most
uncomfortable view of the moral state of the universe
is presented to us ; a view which, without some qua-
lification, approaches very near to the Manichsean
system, by subjecting the feeble race of man, in their
most important concerns, alternately to the dominion
of opjjosite powers. The safe opinion upon this sub-
ject appears to me to lie in the middle between these
two. We cannot pretend to say that an intermediate
being never is allowed to suspend the laws of nature.
But, we are certain, that all power is dependent upon
the Lord of nature. We should be careful not to
bewilder ourselves, by carrying the ideas suggested
by the weakness of human government into our spe-
culations concerning the ways of God; and, we
should always remember, that, in the administration
of Him, whose eyes are in every place, there can be
no delay or opposition to his purpose from the mul-
titude of his ministers. " He doeth according to his
will in the army of heaven." God is all in all. The
power of working miracles may descend from the
Almighty through a gradation of good spirits ; and
he may commission evil spirits, by exercising the
power given to them, to prove his people, or to exe-
cute a judicial sentence upon those who receive not


the love of the truth. But both good and evil spirits
are absolutely under his control ; they fulfil his plea-
sure, and he works by them.

This is the system which appears to be intimated
in Scripture, as far as the Spirit of God hath seen
meet to reveal a speculative point which is not es-
sential to our improvement or comfort. It is indeed
very remarkable, that at the introduction of both the
Jewish and the Christian dispensations, there seems,
according to the most natural interpretation of Scrip-
ture, to have been a certain display of the power of
evil spirits — I mean in the works of the Egyptian
magicians, and in the demoniacs of the New Testa-
ment. But in both cases the display appears to
have been permitted by God, that it might be made
manifest there was in nature a superior power. The
magicians, after they had imitated some of the works
of Moses, could go no farther, but said " This is the
finger of God ;" and therefore God says to Pharaoh,
*' For this cause have I raised thee up for to show
in thee my power, and that my name may be decla-
red throughout all the earth." * The evil spirits
which had afflicted the bodies of men, owned, in like
manner, the power of Jesus, and retired at his com-
mand. Therefore, he says, " I beheld Satan as light-
ning fall from heaven ;" and again, " If I with the
finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom
of God is come to you." f Both dispensations give
warning of false prophets who should show signs.
Moses says, " If there arise among you a prophet
and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, saying, let us go
after other gods, thou shalt not hearken unto the

* Exod. viii. I9 ; ix. iG. t Luke x. 18 ; xi. 20.


words of that prophet, for the Lord your God prov-
eth you, to know whether you love him with all
your soul." * Our Lord says, " There shall arise,
false christs, and shall show great signs and won-
ders ;" t and, it is part of the description which his
Apostle gives of Antichrist, " His coming is after
the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and
lying wonders." ^ Even although you suppose it
to be meant by these warnings, that the signs and
wonders were to be performed with the assistance of
evil spirits, still the miracles upon which the two
dispensations are founded, afford a clear demonstra-
tion of the supremacy of their Author ; and if evil
spirits had permission given them to exercise a cer-
tain power at those times, it was only to prepare for
the destruction of their power.

In the very constitution of the evidence of the
two religions, provision is made for preserving the
true disciples from the dread of evil spirits. What-
ever opinions may have been entertained concerning
their power, they manifestly stand forth in the
Bible, confessing their inferiority, and furnishing by
this confession, to all whose understandings are
sound, and whose hearts are upright, a perpetual
antidote against the fears of superstition.

It appears, then, that the system which ascribes
many of the miracles recorded in history to the agency
of evil spirits, does not detract from the evidence of
Christianity, because our faith rests ujjon works
whose distinguishing character, and whose manifest
superiority to the power of evil spirits, are calculated

* Deut. xiii. 1 , 2, 3. t Matt. xxiv. S*.

X 2 Thess, 2, <).


to remove every degree of hesitation in applying the
argument which miracles afford.

One observation more shuts up the subject.

4. The uncertainty with regard to the duration
of miracles in the Christian Church, does not invali-
date the argument arising from the miracles of Jesus
and his apostles.

All Protestants, and many Catholics, believe, that
the claim of working miracles which the Church of
Rome advances as one mark of her being the true
Church, is without foundation ; and no impartial
discerning person, who reads the history of the won-
ders which for many centuries have been recorded
by that Church, can hesitate a moment in classing
them with the tricks of heathen priests. Dr. Mid-
dleton, in his letter from Rome, has shown that many
of the Popish are an imitation of the heathen mira-
cles, and even those who do not admit that they have
been borrowed, cannot deny the resemblance. On
the other hand, every Christian believes, that real
miracles were performed in the days of the Apostles ;
and the unanimous tradition of the Christian Church

Online LibraryGeorge HillLectures in divinity (Volume 1) → online text (page 7 of 32)