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awaits the assurance of an external authority, which at the same time declares allí external revelation’impossible!” p. 85 – 88.
But the ultimate postulate, on which this whole system of unbelief rests, is the intrinsic impossibility of miracles; and on this point the writers under discussion have adopted a style of reasoning, in which success and defeat are equally fatal. They have been themselves busy in a desperate attempt to actualize the resurrection of the dead, by resuscitating Hume's defunct argument from experience. Had they succeeded, they would have established beyond cavil the possibility of miracles ; in their failure, they have left the field of controversy in statu ante bellum. There cannot be a more utterly baseless assumption, than that the uniformity of the course of nature is a fundamental law of human belief. The contrary is so notoriously the case, that the instances in which belief is thus limited are, even in this skeptical age, less numerous than those of congenital malformation or of idiocy, while, during many periods of the world's history, they have been too sparse to leave of themselves either memorial or record. We might, with immeasurably greater plausibility, assert, that appetency for the abnormal is an element of human nature, and that the sporadic exceptions to this law are defective specimens of their race. We are prepared to maintain this position, not merely in antagonism to its converse, but as in accordance at once with intrinsic probability and with fact. If the Creator does at certain epochs supersede the common course of nature, it is impossible that He should not have adapted man's cognitive faculties to the belief of the supernatural; and on the other hand, the prevalent belief of, nay, demand for, the supernatural, renders it in the highest degree probable that this belief has its stable ground, this demand its accredited supply. Nor does the multitude of confessedly false reports of miracles interfere with this consideration, except to strengthen it. If miracles not only have never taken place, but are intrinsically incredible, how is it that the traditions of all nations bristle with them? Counterfeits presuppose a genuine paradigm. The eleven ancilia are forged after the pattern of the one that fell from heaven. Fiction takes its rise from verisimilitude, and obtains currency by not utterly violating the analogy of fact.
Yet farther, the limitation of human belief by the existing course of nature implies more than the incredibility of miracles. There can be no metaphysical barrier to the belief in miracles, which does not equally negative the belief in the creation of the universe and in the commencement of its present order. It is as conceivable, as possible, with competent evidence as probable, that there may have been events beyond the cycle of present experience eighteen hundred, as eighteen thousand, years ago. But geology demonstrates that the order of nature in the earlier epochs was very different from its present order. It indicates violent catastrophes, the irruption of new trains of causes and new sequences of events, the entrance of new orders of beings upon the stage of animated existence. It bears manifold testimony to the occurrence of miracles at successive geological periods,—that is, to the occur rence of phenomena which were inconsistent with all previous experience, and to the prevalence of phenomena which were equally inconsistent with all subsequent experience. The argument from uniform experience can therefore be successful only with the unscientific mind, and it would be well for those who urge it to join the author of the “ Vestiges,” in appealing from the judgment of men of science to that of the unenlightened mass.
The most that can be urged on this head is an a priori improbability against any specific miraculous narrative. But this may be met by a stronger opposing improbability. Human testimony is a fact, which has a definite weight, according to the intelligence, interest, veracity, persistency, and multitude of witnesses. A single interested, uncorroborated witness is of no avail against current experience. But that several witnesses, honest and competent, and with their interest in the opposite scale, should combine in the promulgation of false reports, is an improbability of the highest order. There is no hypothesis which can account for such a phenomenon. The argument from experience bears, with unmitigated force, against it. The truth of their report under such circumstances becomes less probable than its falsehood.
Nor can it be affirmed that miracles are inconsistent with our actual experience. We have ample experience of an order of nature adapted to our present condition and needs by
infinite power, wisdom, and love. The boundlessness of the divine resources is the one salient fact in the administration under which we live. Folly, malignity, and self-contradiction are the only conceivable forms of impossibility under the government of God. Have there been exigencies, which demanded events inconsistent with the ordinary course of nature? Such exigencies appear on the face of the Christian record. Humanity.was in intense need of spiritual knowledge and guidance, of truths marked by the divine signet, of precepts promulgated under the divine sanction; and our experience authorizes the belief that, under such exigences, this signet would have been affixed, this sanction given.
Among the interlocutors in this book, is one who maintains that the New Testament contains a revelation, but contains it with a large admixture of alloy, and that it is left for the individual inquirer to separate the precious grains from the crude ore, the divine from the human element, and thus to construct from the Christianity of the Apostles a Christianity of his own. It is justly agued, that such a revelation is a revelation not in fact, but in name. No book in the world is so wretchedly adapted to this theory as the New Testament. The Gospels contain absolutely no reasoning, and the reasoning of the Epistles is with reference, not to the principles of theology and ethics, but to their application to certain postures of circumstances that existed in the primitive church, and may never exist again. As regards the articles of Christian belief, the didactic form is constantly maintained, and the validity of what is thus communicated depends wholly on the knowledge of the authors and on their right to be believed. Then, too, the New Testament relates, in great part, to subjects beyond our independent cognizance - to subjects on which we have not at our command the premises requisite for argument. This is especially the case with reference to the future life, concerning which we know absolutely nothing are entirely unprovided with a test, by which we can separate the actual truth from the groundless surmises and gratuitous inferences of the sacred writers. The case is the same, also, with many features of the divine character and administration, which we could determine for ourselves only by changing
places with the Deity. Our diversities of moral disposition and character place the ethics of the New Testament in the same category. Our moral institutions (so called) are a motley mixture of conscience, prejudice, and passion; they are the aggregate of our existing characters. They determine the right or the unlawfulness of resentment, the limits of forbearance and benevolence, the conflicting claims of the animal and the spiritual nature, not by an unvarying standard, but by the stage of moral progress at which we are for the time being. If left to shape our own religion from the materials before us in the New Testament, we must needs except those doctrines which coincide with our preconceived opinions, those precepts which accord with our previous standard, and shall lay all that transcends this measure to the account of Oriental exaggeration, or of the peculiar stress of that primitive age. Christianity will thus be a variable quantity, and the term Christian so utterly indeterminate, that self-complacency and a well-drugged conscience would be sufficient to entitle the wildest day-dreamer or the most abandoned sinner to appropriate it. Under this theory, progress is impossible; for, by its very terms, the religion of the New Testament must be pared down to the standard of the individual, instead of the individual's raising himself to the standard of the Gospel. This condition of things is admirably delineated by Harrington in the following paragraph.
“ The miracles, then, and other evidence, not only play the part of equally supporting truth and falsehood, but what is still more wonderful, convert the same things, in different men, into truth and falsehood alternately. Miracles they must verily be if they can do that! A wonderful revelation it certainly is, which thus accommodates itself to the varying conditions of the human intellect and conscience, and demonstrates just so much as each of you is pleased to accept, and no more. No doubt the whole corpus dogmatum,' so supported, will, by the entire body of such believers, be eaten up; just as was the Mahometan hog, so humorously referred to by Cowper ; but even that had not all its forbidden parts' miraculously shown to be unforbidden' to different minds! I do not wonder that such a revelation should need miracles; that any should be sufficient, is the greatest wonder of all; if indeed we except two;— the first, that Supreme Wisdom should
have constructed such a curious revelation, in which he has revealed alternately, to different people, truth and falsehood, and has established each on the very same evidence; and the second (almost as great) that any rational creature should be got to receive such a revelation on such evidence as equally applies to points which he says it does not prove, and to points which he says it does ; these points, however, being, it appears, totally different in different men !” p. 400.
Without the element of authority, we have no revelation; and the more ample the crude materials for the construction of our religious fabrics, the greater is our liability to essential error in selecting and arranging them. The question of the authority of the Scriptures takes precedence (and by a long interval) of that of the degree and mode in which the sacred writers were supernaturally inspired. Whether they were, by their personal intercourse with Jesus Christ, so placed in the very focus of spiritual light, that with no more than the ordinary exercise of their faculties, they could be his reliable biographers and reporters; whether their inspiration was a general illumination and elevation of their inward being, or whether they were specially endowed with reference to the books which they severally contributed to the sacred canon, it may be impossible for us to determine; and, even had we the precise formula for inspiration, our conceptions of the spiritual experience of the evangelists and apostles must at best be utterly inadequate. It is of no immediate practical concern for us to know how the Scriptures were written, while we do need and crave to know what they are to us, whether merely suggestive or of plenary authority. Now it is self-evident that, if the Christian revelation were designed for the perpetual benefit of the race, and not for the enlightenment of a single generation, there must have been some reliable mode provided for the transmission of its teachings and requirements. If it is incumbent on us to be Christians, it is no less essential to us than it was to the apostles, to know what Jesus was, said, and did ; and it is of no possible concern or avail to mankind at large, that he had a company of personal followers, if they were liable to misreport him, by blending their folly with his wisdom, by ascribing to him their own misconceptions, by putting into his mouth their own unwarranted