Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 2. -- Miracles can be known as such.

Thesis XL. -- By careful inquiry the extraordinary Divine operations called miracles can be sufficiently distinguished from the wonders of nature and art, and from the operations of created spirits.

248. Affirming in our thesis that miracles are knowable, we do not maintain that every particular miracle is sufficiently open to all inquirers. All we hold is, that those in whose favour God works miracles, and to whom He wishes thereby to manifest Himself in an extraordinary way, cannot fail to discover Him as the Author of those effects. Our argument is simply this. God never works miracles but for an end worthy of Himself. He works them in order to draw men nearer to Himself by extraordinary manifestations of His Divine attributes, of His power, wisdom, benevolence, mercy, justice. His miracles are intended to be a solid comfort to men of good-will, and an earnest and terrifying warning to those who revolt against the voice of their conscience. They are, as it were, a Divine speech, expressed, not by Divine words, but by Divine deeds. Now, is it possible that God should thus address men without offering them sufficient means to ascertain that He has spoken? To suppose this would involve the denial either of God's power or of God's wisdom. The supposition in fact amounts to this, either that God cannot make Himself known as the Author of these special works, or that He does not care to do so. Take the first alternative, and you deny God's power; take the second, and you deny His wisdom. In both cases you think of the Creator in a way altogether incompatible with His perfection. Men are able to stamp their works with such indisputable signs of their individuality as that nobody, on sufficient inquiry, can see any reason for suspending his judgment as to their origin. And should the Creator be powerless to manifest Himself by equally clear evidences? Men of common sense do not annoy their fellow-men with ambiguous communications, the proper meaning and origin of which nobody can discover; and shall the infinitely wise God speak the language of signs and wonders in such a way that no amount of reasonable inquiry can throw light upon the real speaker? Such suppositions cannot be entertained for a moment. But to acknowledge them as absurd is equivalent to the statement that miracles are really knowable if duly inquired into.

249. This last-mentioned condition must be added. Otherwise we may take for miraculous what are really no more than hidden effects of nature, artificial tricks of men, or operations of created spirits, surpassing men in their acuteness of intellect and in their power of applying the forces of nature to ends of their own. The first and second of these cases is possible, and has happened often enough. The third case is of course put down as impossible by materialists, extreme evolutionists, and agnostics. If there are any other thinkers, not in this class, who still do not believe in rational beings higher than man, and yet infinitely distant from the Creator, then, we must say, their stand-point is not conformable to reason and history, and is besides opposed to a fundamental truth of Christianity. Reason a priori finds it far more probable that between the one infinite spirit and human souls not purely spiritual, there should exist created pure spirits, than that they should not exist. History testifies that the belief in such spirits among civilized nations is as old as mankind. The history of magnetism and spiritualism countenances this supposition, that some purely spiritual creatures do at times make their influence sensibly felt in this world. Such is the judgment of many Catholic theologians, who have studied the history of spiritualism with great attention.{14}

250. It appears then that created rational beings higher than man, or at least other than human, influence this visible world. Shall we then call their influence miraculous? According to the definition of a miracle we cannot do so, unless they act not by mere natural power but as instruments of God. Now St. Thomas, speaking from the stand-point of Christian Revelation, and consequently taking for granted that there are good spirits (holy angels) and evil spirits (demons or devils), lays it down as an evident corollary of revealed doctrine that God, whilst using good angels as moral instruments for miraculous effects, never grants to evil spirits greater power than they have by nature, but on the contrary, often restrains their natural energy.{15}

Whatever such spirits do, is done, as the Angelic Doctor says, "by skilfully utilizing through motion the potential energies latent in nature " -- adhibendo corporalia semina per motum localem.{16} This they do with an incredible velocity, and an insight into possible combination of natural forces of which man can form no idea.

251. Thus for a due inquiry into miracles, we need a double series of criteria; the first to guard us against taking for miracles mere natural effects, caused by physical forces left to themselves or artificially applied by men; whilst the second helps us to distinguish miracles from the effects of evil spirits. As the good angels never go about to deceive men by their artifices, we do not want a series of criteria to mark off their natural operations from true miracles.

Before the application of these criteria, the historical truth of the fact itself must first be tested. Inquiry must be made as to "Who reports the fact?" "Could such a witness know the truth, or is it likely that he was deceived?" "Is the veracity of the witness above suspicion?" If the answer to these three questions is favourable, we are morally certain of the existence of the fact, as reported by one or more immediate or mediate witnesses, according to the ordinary rules of testimony.{17} When this certainty has been reached, the criteria of the miraculous character of the fact come into application.

252. (1) Criteria by which we may judge whether a well attested fact apparently miraculous, is or is not to be assigned to hidden physical causes, either left to themselves or applied by men.

(a) An effect, which of its very nature is out of proportion to the efficacy of physical forces however combined by human ingenuity, must be due to a cause transcending physical nature and the will of man. Such an effect would be the raising to life again of a human body dead and buried and in a state of decomposition.

(b) If an effect be within the competence of physical and human causes under certain conditions, but not under the conditions present in this particular well attested instance, such an effect must be attributed to an agency above that of nature and man. The sudden cure of leprosy or blindness by a mere form of words would be such an effect.

(c) As often as a well attested effect is produced after physical means have been applied, which according to the judgment of experts are not quite out of proportion to the production of the effect, yet not likely to produce it, we are not sufficiently warranted to put the effect down to a superhuman cause. Of this sort are cures of certain nervous diseases by such influences upon the imagination as naturally cause considerable shocks to the system, and might thus have remedied the disorder.

253. (2) Criteria by which miracles are distin -guished from wonders worked by evil spirits.

Note. -- For the application of these criteria it is supposed that those of the first series have been applied, and that there is no longer any doubt about the superhuman character of the effect.

(a) A well attested effect of such a nature that it could not have been produced by any physical forces. however well arranged must be Divine. By certain material unseen influences, guided by created spirits, diseases may be cured; and even hidden things may be revealed. But it seems inconceivable that any such influence should bring back the soul of a dead man to a body already in a state of decay.

(b) However marvellous and well attested an effect may be, yet if by its very nature it tends to discredit beliefs, which can be proved to rest upon a Divine foundation, and to have been confirmed by real prophecies and true miracles, it is certainly not Divine, but attributable only to fallen spirits opposed to God. Such were the effects produced through the instrumentality of Simon Magus,{18} of Elymas,{19} of Apollonius of Tyana,{20} and of various so-called idols.{21} We have been warned beforehand that "many false prophets shall arise and shall seduce"{22} many, and that a time shall come "when that wicked one shall be revealed . . . whose coming is according to the working of Satan in all power and signs and lying wonders."{23}

(c) Superhuman effects which contain anything manifestly unworthy of the Creator, cannot in reason be put down to Divine influence. Therefore St. Thomas, attributing certain magic arts of the middle ages to superhuman influences, brings this argument among others to show that evil spirits are concerned in them. "To favour things which are contrary to virtue is not the work of a good spirit, but these arts favour such things; for they result in adultery, theft, murder, and other evil deeds. . . . Therefore," &c.{24}

(d) If neither the nature of a superhuman effect, nor the human person who is instrumental in producing it, nor the object for the attainment of which it is produced, nor the circumstances under which it occurs, show anything to excite reasonable suspicion of demoniac influence, the effect must be considered as a Divine work. A fortiori must it be considered such, if with increasing inquiry, made with a humble and sincere desire to know the truth, evidences from all sides concur to prove that God alone can be the author of the wonder in question.{25}

Objections against the knowableness of miracles, as distinguished from the possibility of them, may be reduced to the two following, the first of which is Hume's celebrated argument as restated by Mill, the second has frequently been brought forward by various unbelievers.

254. (1) Mill, repeating Hume's argument,{26} reasons thus: "The evidence of miracles consists of testimony. The ground of our reliance on testimony is our experience, that certain conditions being supposed, testimony is generally veracious. But the same experience tells us that even under the best conditions testimony is frequently either intentionally or unintentionally false. When therefore the fact to which testimony is produced is one, the happening of which would be more at variance with experience than the falsehood of testimony, we ought not to believe it. And this rule all prudent persons observe in the conduct of life. Those who do not are sure to suffer for their credulity.

"Now a miracle (the argument goes on) is in the highest possible degree contradictory to experience; for if it were not contradictory to experience, it would not be a miracle. The very reason for its being regarded as a miracle is, that it is a breach of the law of nature, that is, of an otherwise invariable and inviolable uniformity in the succession of natural events. There is therefore the very strongest reason for disbelieving it that experience can give for disbelieving anything. But the mendacity or error of witnesses, even though numerous and of fair character, is quite within the bounds of common experience. That supposition, therefore, ought to be preferred."

Answer. This sort of reasoning manifestly begs the question. It is said that it is an invariable experience that miracles never occur; therefore they never occur. But that is just the question, whether the experience against miracles is really invariable? According to most trustworthy sources of historical knowledge there never has been such an invariable experience. Nor is this unbroken uniformity demonstrable a priori by any argument available to show that God cannot work miracles. We have proved that He can. Therefore the assertion of invariable uniformity is not borne out either by testimony or theory.

Nor can the interruption of the uniformity of the course of nature in comparatively few cases, and those settled from eternity by infinite Wisdom, reasonably be called a breach of law. As well call every limitation included in the tenor of a law a breach of the same. Then it is said that witnesses are never free from the suspicion of mendacity. Foolish and unreasonable suspicion, granted. But can we reasonably suspect all witnesses, however numerous and however fair their character may be, even when they attest their experiences on oath, as is done in the processes of beatifications and canonizations in the Catholic Church?

255. The second objection may be thus stated in its general form: "Even the best attested facts alleged as miraculous may be due to some hidden physical causes of which we do not know; for who can know all the forces of nature?"

Answer. Of course we cannot be certain that the event is miraculous, before reasonable inquiry has been made, what has been done in the case, and what has not been done. But such an inquiry may surely show that no physical forces, competent to that effect, have been applied, though they may exist in nature. For instance, a man who suffers from a disease, say a malignant tumour, pronounced fatal by several good physicians, is cured on a sudden and perfectly by addressing a short prayer to God through the intercession of a Saint. It is absolutely certain that his cure is a Divine effect. If he will not be satisfied about this, he might as well doubt whether his thirst to-day is quenched by the liquid that he drinks to-day.

Thus not only the natural Providence of God, in which every monotheist believes, but also His supernatural Providence, the great consolation and strength of the Christian during life and at the hour of death, stands perfectly in conformity with reason.

{14} Not long ago the Spectator wrote as follows: "He the writer would assert that no one who has studied what are now called euphemistically the phenomena of hypnotism, and the various states of distinct personal consciousness which the French physicians elicit in their hypnotic patients, should doubt that the old doctrine of one spirit over-riding another in the same organism is as good an explanation of the facts as any other which can be suggested; indeed, a great deal better, in his opinion -- he speaks only of himself -- than Mr. Myers theory of different strata of consciousness. Though the writer speaks only for himself in saying what he does, the present generation has, in his opinion, ample and absolute evidence, if it will only bear patiently with fools and knaves and impostors of all kinds in seeking it, that alien intelligences not acting through any human body -- and sometimes intelligences of a very mean order -- do produce definite physical effects on this world, and do sometimes induce aberrations of mind in men and women which rise to a point of virtual insanity." (Spectator, Feb. 9, 1889, "Professor Huxley and Agnosticism," p. 195.) {15} Cf. Sum. Theol. I. q. 110. art. 3. et art. 4. and De Potentia, q. 6. art. 3. art. 4. art. 5. In the last place he says distinctly: "Sicut Angeli boni per gratiam aliquid possunt ultra naturalem virtutem, ita Angeli mali minus possunt ex divina providentia eos reprimente, quam possint secundum naturalem virtutem. . . . Cum operatio miraculosa sit quoddam divinum testimonium indicativum divinae virtutis et veritatis; si daemonibus quorum est tota voluntas ad malum, aliqua potestas daretur faciendi miracula, Deus falsitatis eorum testis existeret; quod divinam bonitatem non decet."

{16} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 110. art. 4. ad 3.

{17} See the First Principles of this series, c. vii.

{18} Acts viii. 9.

{19} Acts xiii. 8.

{20} Lactantius, Instit. Div. v. c. 3.

{21} See St. Augustine, De Civit. Dei, Bk. XXII. cc 9, 10. Cf. also Euseb. Eccles. Hist. iv. c. 3, a passage quoted from the Christian apologist. Quadratus. Cf. the excellent work, System der göttlichen Thaten des Christenthums, by Professor Dr. F. X. Dieringer.

{22} St. Matt. xxiv. ii.

{23} 2 Thess. ii. 8, 9.

{24} 'Praestare enim patrocinium aliquibus quae sunt contraria virtuti non est alicujus intellectus bene dispositi. Hoc autem fit ex hujusmodi artibus; fiunt enim plerumque adulteria, furta, homicidia, et alia hujusmodi maleficia procurantur. . . . Non est ergo." etc. (St. Thomas, Contra Gent. iii. c. 106.)

{25} "Non pertinet ad providentiam Dei, non permittere falsa signa quae ad probationem et profectum electorum prosunt.; sed pertinet ad providentiam Dei, dare auxilium ac modum quo possint dijudicari et cognosci, quia non est divinae bonitatis et sapientiae ut permittat hominem tentari ultra id quod potest." (Cf. Suarez, De Mysteriis vitae Christi, d. 31, sect. 2.)

{26} Essays on Religion, pp. 219, seq.

<< ======= >>