Principles of Natural Theology / by George Hayward Joyce, S.J.

Chapter XIII. The Divine Omnipotence.

  1. The Attribute of Power.
  2. The Scope of the Divine Onmipotence.
  3. Divine Omnipotence Denied: 'A Finite God.'
  4. Miracles.

1. The attribute of power. By God's power -- or as we generally call it, His omnipotence -- we understand the principle of His external activity. To this attribute we refer all that He effects externally to Himself.

God, as we have already seen, does not produce His effects by transitive action. Transitive action, though it proceeds from the agent, is consummated in the object of the activity. Undoubtedly we sometimes give the name of action to the preliminary changes by which the agent brings his powers from their normal condition of mere potentiality, and renders them in fact active. But until this process is complete, he is not yet, properly speaking, an agent: and the action cannot take place until he is so. Thus to take an example: when we impress a seal on wax, all our movements till the seal is actually communicating its shape to the sealing-wax are preliminary to the exercise of causality by which the shape is transmitted. They are necessary as conditions; they are not the action denoted by the verb 'to impress.' As Aristotle accurately points out, wherever transitive action takes place the action of the efficient cause is not something different from the actual change effected in the patient. The same change which as received into the subject is termed its passio, viewed as emanating from the agent is that agent's actio. Actio est in passo -- 'the action is in the patient' -- was the formula in which the Schoolmen summed up this most important doctrine.{1} It follows from this that such action can never be other than an accident. A determination which, emanating from the agent, is received by the patient, and thus is a perfection of both,{2} cannot be substantial being. Transitive action therefore can have no place in God. God's action is identical with His substantial essence: it is Himself. The Divine action, therefore, is necessarily immanent. Yet since God can, by His free-will, produce finite things external to Himself, we say of Him that His action is virtually transitive.

There has been some debate whether God's power is to be reckoned as an attribute distinct from intellect and will: and some authors have held that it is so. But there can be little doubt that this view is erroneous. Nor does it seem that it should be referred to His intellect, though the intellect exercises a directive function in its regard. God's power is an aspect of His will. We may distinguish between God's free-will as elective and as executive. His power is His executive will. That we are right in this identification seems evident from the fact that our own will possesses a capacity for direct executive action. It is able to move the body. How it is that the spiritual faculty initiates the impulse to which bodily motion is due, we are perfectly ignorant. The fact, however, is certain. And since every perfection belonging to a created will must necessarily be found in the Divine Will, we need not hesitate to regard God's power as pertaining to His will.

It is doubtless true that, except in regard to the initial impulse of motion, our executive powers are situated in physical organs. Our hands and feet are not moved immediately by the will; an apparatus of nerves and muscles transmits the will's commands, and acts instrumentally on its behalf. And a fortiori this is so where our activity is exercised on other bodies. But this is to be attributed, it would seem, not to any necessity of the case, but to the special conditions of human nature as such. Our nature is composite, partly spiritual and partly corporeal. And functions which in a purely spiritual nature would be exercised through spirit alone, in us become complex and demand the participation of both portions of our being.

The power of creatures is limited in various manners. If a creature does not possess a given perfection, it cannot communicate it. The natural generative force of a sparrow cannot result in an egg which will hatch into a bird of paradise. A man cannot carve a statue, unless he first conceive a form which he may transfer to the marble. And even if the agent possesses the perfection, the means for achieving the result may be lacking: the hand or eye may be insufficiently trained, or the external aids requisite to the work may be unobtainable. But there can be no limit to God's power. He possesses within Himself all perfection, for He is the fullness of being. Moreover, for that very reason, He is not dependent upon means. He may employ means, if He will; but He stands in no need of them. His power, like His intellect, is infinite: and for that reason is termed omnipotence. And being infinite, it follows that He can create; that by His will He can call into existence that which had no existence before.

2. The scope of omnipotence. The precise meaning of omnipotence calls for elucidation. For even those who affirm the absolute infinity of God's power, admit that there are things which He cannot do: e.g., that He cannot bring it about that two and two make five, or that the past should not have happened. Difficulties have often been felt on this subject. And some have held that those who make this admission are inconsistent in maintaining the Divine omnipotence.

The object of active power, whether in God or in creatures, is being which is causally produced. Power, as we have already noted, is based on some perfection -- some mode of being -- possessed by the agent: and is directed to the communication in some manner of this perfection. It is impossible that power should have any other object than such being, just as it is impossible that hearing should perceive what is not sound, or that sight should perceive what is not coloured. It may, indeed, be asked whether we cannot employ power to destroy? But the reply is easy. We can only destroy by putting the thing in a new state of being. The direct object of our action is not destruction but the realization of the new condition, which involves the absence of the form whose removal we intend. If, e.g., I break or deface a statue, the immediate result is the production in the marble of a new shape, of which it previously had but the potency. The actualization of this new shape involves the disappearance of the old. God, doubtless, can annihilate in the full sense of the word. But were He to do this, it would not be by the use of His active power, but by ceasing to use it. Created being only exists through the continuous conservation of God. Did He not conserve things in being, they could not endure for an instant. Annihilation denotes simply the withdrawal of the causal influx we term conservation.

Since then the object of active power is being as causally produced, it follows that omnipotence does not extend to what is not being, nor yet to what is incompatible with the necessary conditions of that which is due to efficient causation.{3} This does not involve limits to omnipotence. Infinite power can realize all things. The objects excluded from omnipotence are so because they are not things at all, but no-things, and hence are incapable of realization by reason of their own nonentity, not by reason of any lack of power in God. It may be well to illustrate each of these two sources of impossibility. Notions which contain contradictory elements are not being. Each element may signify something real: but since the other is contradictory in its regard, it removes the being thus signified. Thus God cannot create a material spirit. Spirit is being; but matter is the express denial of the form of being which spirit signifies. The notion is a non-ens. Similarly, God cannot bring it about that two straight lines should enclose a space. The terms are reciprocally exclusive. Two lines such as to enclose a space are ipso facto not straight lines. Lines which are straight and yet not straight are a chimera. So, too, it is impossible that the past should be made not to have happened. If it is past, it has happened. A thing which both has and has not happened is meaningless. Nor can God create a thing which lacks any of the conditions essential to being which is due to efficient causation. He cannot make a creature which will exist in such a way as not to need His conserving action. He cannot endow a creature with infinite power.

Again, it is no diminution of omnipotence that God cannot do those things which are inconsistent with infinite perfection, and only possible to a finite agent. We saw in the last chapter that He cannot change the free decrees which He has made, Yet it appeared that this is due to the infinitude of His wisdom, and not to any limitation in His perfections. Change of purpose in a free agent supposes the presence of a reason for the new resolve. To the infinite, however, who from all eternity has possessed the perfect intuition, of every aspect of truth, no such reason can arise. In other words, our power to change springs from our finite limitations -- from our imperfect knowledge and our faulty judgment. Under this head we may reckon all other 'mixed' perfections, which are found eminently, but not formally, in God. God's power is not limited, because, e.g., He cannot exercise sense-perception but possesses His knowledge in a different and higher manner. We have touched on this point frequently in the course of the work, and there is no need to enlarge upon it here.

Somewhat more consideration must be given to the objection arising from the fact that God can do no evil. It has been urged that here, at least, there is a real restriction on His power, which renders the word omnipotence a misnomer. It is sometimes replied that the essence of sin lies in the adhesion of the will to something which withdraws us from our last end, God: that it is an act of the created will at variance with the law imposed by the Divine will; and, consequently, that in reference to God, the term can have no significance. God's will cannot he in opposition to itself. Yet this answer, though true, seems to evade the real point of the difficulty. What is really intended is that the moral law does not depend on God's mere decree: that to lie, to act unjustly, and the like, are wrong antecedently to any Divine command: and that because they are wrong, God cannot do them. This, it is argued, is a positive restriction of Divine power. Certainly, it is true that the moral law is not constituted solely by a Divine precept. Though some have so taught,{4} Scholastic philosophy maintains unhesitatingly that there are actions which are good or bad, as the case may be, in virtue of their own intrinsic nature, and independently of positive law. No positive law could make injustice right. To render to each his due is in accordance with reason: to do otherwise is to violate the order which reason demands. Similarly, to lie is of its own nature contrary to right reason. The purpose of speech is the manifestation of thought. To turn it to a contrary end is a perversion of its very nature. it is wholly impossible that such things can be the object of the Divine will. The primary object of God's love, as we explained above (chap. xii. § I), is His own infinite nature. That nature is the supreme exemplar of all harmony and order. Whatever God has made partakes in its degree of that order: and the more perfect, the higher in the scale of being, any nature is, the more marvellous is the harmonious order which it displays. God cannot will the disordered: for in so far as there is discord and disorder, there is unlikeness to the Divine essence, not likeness. He is supreme reason: and has stamped the reflection of His reason on all His works. He cannot approve that which is the antithesis of reason. Thus, man's nature being what it is, God could not have commanded that the passions should dominate the spiritual part of man, that hatred, anger, and concupiscence should be reckoned as right, and forgiveness of injuries, self-control and temperance should be punished as wrong.

It must not, however, be imagined from what we have said that God's hatred of sin is simply a disapprobation of the disordered, and that His love for the virtues of the just is a mere aesthetic approval of the perfect and the harmonious. It is far more than this. God is the last end of the creature. And the rational agent tends to God by the observance of the natural law. To disobey it is to refuse God as our end. It is to make our likes and our dislikes, and not God's will, the norm of our action. Sin is no aesthetic error, but the rejection of God. And on the other hand, the life of virtue is obedience inspired by love.

Yet God's inability to do evil places no restriction on His omnipotence. We have seen that when some property of finite creatures carries imperfection with it, God possesses all that there is in it of reality and perfection, but not the imperfection: and that this involves no limitation of His being. Such is the case here. Acts contrary to right reason involve imperfection of the gravest kind. God can do whatever is positive and perfect in such acts, but not what is imperfect. Our own power to do wrong is no perfection in us. It springs not from power, but from weakness -- from the blindness of the intellect and the infirmity of the will.

3. The Divine omnipotence denied -- 'A finite God.' Several recent philosophical writers have maintained that God is not infinite but finite: that He is limited both in being and in power. The predicate 'Almighty,' it is said, is a relic of semi-civilized ages, in which men had not yet learned to conceive God in His ethical aspect as the God of Righteousness. We are bidden to remember 'how closely the associations of oriental monarchy have wound themselves round the God-idea,' and to trace the belief in His omnipotence to this source. The notion, we are assured, cannot be justified by the speculative reason. Since this opinion has obtained some vogue, it is necessary to discuss it and explain the grounds on which it is based. And this seems to be the most convenient place for doing so.

At many periods of human history the evil and the suffering of the world have given rise to dualist theories. The universe has been regarded as due, not to a single Creator, but to the operation of two opposite principles -- the one the source of all perfection and all order, the other the source of imperfection, privation and evil. Both Plato and Aristotle held that God's action had been limited by the pre-existent matter out of which He had formed the world; while the followers of Zoroaster, and later the Manichaeans, taught that over against God was set a hostile power, the spirit of evil, self-existent like Himself: and that the world was the theatre of a vast conflict between the two. Dualism as such is extinct. But the problem of evil is, undoubtedly, responsible in a measure for the somewhat similar doctrine of a finite God today. The theory first obtained a foothold in contemporary thought through the writings of William James.{5} He expressly declares that he cannot withstand the conclusion that the "sweat and tragedy of life" are not merely the conditions of spiritual growth in man, but that the very being of God Himself is thereby being perfected.

Yet so far as philosophical circles were concerned, the problem of evil played only a subsidiary part, and was by no means the main cause of the welcome accorded to James's suggestion of a finite God. The chief factor was the growing reaction against that idealist monism which for some decades had held a dominating position wherever the influence of Hegel was paramount. With this monism we shall deal at length in chapter xv. Here it must be enough to say that it rules out all individual personality, maintaining that we are not so many complete and distinct substances, but mere modes of that universal 'experience ' which constitutes the sole Real. Such a theory conflicts so sharply with the testimony of consciousness that a reaction was bound to follow. Hence James himself and other thinkers protested emphatically that, whatever philosophical speculation may say on the subject, individual personality is a fact which cannot be explained away. Now it is evident that if finite minds are real in the same sense that God is real -- in other words, if there be no analogy of being -- then God is not infinite: the Divine essence is limited by reality which is exclusive of God. It is idle to say that the existence of other minds brings enrichment, not limit, to God's being. Such an argument is its own refutation. A being susceptible of enrichment is not an infinite being. If God and finite minds mean more than God alone, as these writers hold, then God is limited. This is true, even if it be maintained that finite minds owe their existence to creation. But in point of fact this is not always admitted. One writer at least, Professor Howison (of the University of California), boldly maintains that minds are not due to efficient causation at all, but that, like God Himself, they are underived and self-existent: that God is primus inter pares. "The distinction between the soul and the God who recognizes it and redeems it, can never be truly stated as . . . a contrast between efficient cause and produced effect. . . . No mind can have an efficient relation to another mind."{6} He contends that "no being that arises out of efficient causation can be free": that even if we imagine it to be endowed with an inner principle of activity of its own "it is only apparently, not really, self-active. . . . It would be derived from the contriving thought of the maker, would be completely in subjection to that, must simply unfold and follow out the course implanted in it" (p. 332). It follows that we do not owe our being to any save ourselves. We simply are. God, however, does hold a certain supremacy -- the supremacy of the final cause of all. He is the "central guiding light in a realm of self-governing persons" (p. 61). Omnipotence, of course, disappears. The term, however, is retained, in accordance with that ancient practice by which the authors of revolutionary theories prefer to veil their full import by the employment of customary terminology. "Genuine omnipotence and omniscience," we are told, "are only to be realized in the control of free beings, and in inducing the divine image in them by moral influences instead of metaphysical and physical agencies: that is by final instead of efficient causation" (p. 64).

In view of what has been said in previous chapters a brief criticism of this theory will be sufficient here. We have already seen that self-subsistent being is of necessity infinite being: that if being is found hedged in by limits, the reason of the limit must be looked for in an external cause: that if it exists of itself and underived, it must exist in its plenitude -- not as restricted to this or that particular mode or type. In other words, for a finite nature to be the source of its own existence is, in the nature of things, a contradiction. A multitude of self-subsistent beings would be a multitude of infinites -- of Gods. Professor Howison is eager to deny that he supposes any such absurdity as this. But the absurdity is a necessary conclusion, which given his premises, must perforce follow.

Again: there is yet another metaphysical absurdity in the notion of a being which, though it has no efficient cause, has yet a final cause. What is self-subsistent, having no efficient cause outside itself, is thereby shown not to be dependent on any external causality. It exists of and for itself. To suppose that it needs a final cause external to itself is to suppose that it is not self-subsistent. If its actions need a final cause, so, of necessity, must its existence require one. And an external final cause can only determine a being to existence in so far as it moves an efficient cause to operate.

Furthermore, it is the merest unproved assertion that God cannot create a free being. To create at all, no matter what the object, demands, as will appear in the next chapter, infinite power. But, if it be once granted that God possesses infinite power, and employs it to call finite being into existence, there is no apparent reason why the created thing should not be a spirit; and if spiritual, free. Infinite power can effect whatever is not self-contradictory. No contradiction is contained in the notion of a created free being.

Other criticisms might be offered. But these will probably be sufficient. It has seemed worth while to call attention to this theory as one of the eccentricities of modern thought. It is little wonder that many able men hold philosophical speculation in little esteem, when it offers them systems so divorced from reality as this! What reasonable man will really believe for an instant that he is self-subsistent? He knows for certain that he is nothing of the kind. There was a time when men looked to metaphysics to vindicate the first principles without which no science of any kind is possible. Such is its true office. But this it will never accomplish until it is rescued from the chaos to which recent speculation has plunged it, and is brought back to the sure guidance of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The discussion of the problem of evil is reserved for our last chapter. It will there appear that neither the existence of physical nor of moral evil is irreconcilable with the goodness or with the omnipotence of God.

4. Miracles. Our treatment of the Divine omnipotence would be incomplete without some discussion of the possibility of the miraculous. Among the various questions with which Natural Theology deals, hardly one has been more debated during the last century than this. There is no reason here for surprise. Miracles are only intelligible if the creationist explanation of the world be true, and if the Creator takes a personal interest in the lives of men to the extent of interfering from time to time with physical law for moral ends. Neither pantheists, nor Kantians, nor materialists, have any room for the miraculous. Their respective systems exclude it altogether, and these important groups are reinforced by those who, though perhaps little interested in philosophical speculation, reject the idea of a direct Divine revelation. For the Creator's interference with physical law is usually held to have as one of its primary objects the authentication of a Divine message to mankind. To all of these the issue is vital. It is alleged that the occurrence of miracles can be established by adequate testimony. The opponents of the miraculous are thus called on to cope with the weightiest of all arguments -- the argument from facts. They meet it by contending that, even for the theist, the miraculous is open to fatal objections: and that for this reason theists no less than themselves are bound to reject the testimony offered, no matter what its apparent value. We maintain, on the contrary, that not merely are miracles possible, but that no valid reason can be shown why God should not for wise and adequate ends intervene from time to time in human affairs by thus altering the normal course of nature.

A miracle may be defined as a marvellous event, occurring within the sphere of sensible experience, which involves the suspension of some law of nature, and hence must be attributed to the direct action of God. The definition demands that the event should be the object of sensible experience. A miracle is understood to be a sign -- to be a means employed by the Creator to compel the attention of His rational creatures to His immediate action. If it did not fall under our senses it would not serve this end. Catholic theology teaches that God does in fact suspend natural laws in cases where sensible perception is impossible, e.g., in transubstantiation. These events it does not term miracles in the technical sense. The point at issue between theism and those who reject the miraculous is the possibility of a suspension of natural law. It will greatly assist us in forming a judgment on this subject if we consider first what is meant by a law of nature. It is manifest that before we can argue concerning the possibility of exceptions, we must know what laws of nature themselves are. A confusion of ideas on this subject would render the whole discussion futile. Yet there is little doubt that a good deal of confusion exists: and that some at least of the disputants have not taken the necessary preliminary step of clearing their ideas on this point.

A law of nature is a uniform mode of activity which natural agents of the same type observe when placed in similar circumstances. The agents of the material universe fall into definite classes -- species -- each of which is characterized by a series of properties possessed by every member of the class. Thus the specific properties of any given metal are everywhere the same. Pure lead, e.g., has everywhere a specific gravity slightly more than 11,352 times that of water: it melts at 327.7 degrees c; it boils at a temperature between 1450 degrees and 1600 degrees. The same holds good as regards living things, whether of the vegetable or animal kingdom. Each type is marked by its own characteristics, its own way of acting. The oak will not produce the foliage of the acacia; nor will a sparrow's egg hatch into any other bird but a sparrow. We call these uniformities laws of nature. They are rightly termed necessary, though not all are necessary in quite the same measure. Under certain conditions some of them admit of modification. Both animals and plants occasionally produce individuals displaying some new and unexpected quality. Yet this does not show that the uniformity previously noted was not a law of nature, but merely that within the type lay concealed a certain potency of variation hitherto unobserved, which, given the requisite environment, would become apparent. What was conceived as rigidly necessary, was so only within certain limits. It is, further, to be noted that these properties are reckoned as generic or specific according as they are peculiar to a particular species or common to a wider class. There are some properties which are common to all material substances, e.g., the laws of motion: others, to certain definite classes of greater or less extent. Hence a miracle may affect either a generic law or one peculiar to a species. The resuscitation of a dead body is an exception to a law common to all living substances. To walk on water would involve a change merely in a property of water, as such.

These properties are the original endowment of natural substances, conferred on them by the Creator. When He formed the various orders of being, animate and inanimate, He gave to each type its natural properties and its determined mode of acting. Man, in virtue of his reason, is rightly regarded as the lord of nature. But he exercises his dominion solely by employing substances in accordance with their respective laws. These prescribe the manner in which alone he may use them. These laws he is powerless to change in the least particular. In his regard they are necessary. But it does not follow that they are necessary where the Creator is concerned. He established them: and He can alter them. No consistent theist can doubt that it is within the divine competence to suspend the operation of any natural property, or to give to a substance some new property for the time being. He cannot, as we saw, make two lines enclose a space: for this would be a contradiction in terms. But no contradiction is involved if fire does not burn, or if water sustains a body heavier than itself. The substance remains what it was; only the operation of a particular property is suspended.

The difference between the meaning of the term 'law' as used to denote these fixed modes of physical activity and as used of some positive enactment, whether made by God or by some human authority, must be carefully observed.{7} The two senses are only connected by an analogy. In the latter case the efficient principle is the decree of the superior in so far as it is obligatory on the will of his subjects. The same single decree is operative in every instance: and if a dispensation is given, it is a dispensation from the binding force of this decree. But it is quite otherwise in regard of a law of nature. Here the efficient principle is not something common to all, but a physical property inherent in the individual. If a miracle occurs, it is this individual substance alone which undergoes change. The point deserves attention. For many, in dealing with this subject, speak as though some enactment were in question, and the suspension affected, not an individual substance, but a general decree. They seem to imply that a miracle involves two contrary acts of will on the part of the Creator -- one imposing the law on a class and including within its scope every individual of the species, the other granting an exception.

Not merely is miraculous action not impossible to God; but it may justly be said to be no less natural to Him than his action in accordance with the particular specific properties with which He has endowed substances. Indeed, there seems to be an antecedent probability of His adopting this course. We see, in fact, a valid reason for divine intervention in the ordinary course of nature. The physical order of the universe is not the only order which He has instituted. The moral order likewise owes its existence to Him. This, too, has fixed laws, though they are very different from the laws of which we have been speaking. The sphere of their operation is the free will of man: and the ultimate purpose of this order is that man by his observance of its laws should tend towards God as his last end. It is true that the ordinary course of nature suffices to make God's existence known to men. Yet they are terribly prone to forget Him altogether, and to live as though there were no God. More than this: the story of the past shews that even when they reflect on these subjects, the human mind tends, by a strange perversity, to misinterpret the testimony of created things. On the one hand it falls into pantheism and identifies the Creator with His works: and on the other it lapses into materialism, declaring that the universe with all its wonders is simply the chance collocation of atoms. In view of the issues at stake it is not wonderful that God, for the sake of the higher order, should make exceptions in the lower. For no way is better suited than miraculous intervention to compel His rational creatures to recognize His existence and His supremacy over that order of nature which seems to so many to be the All. In this way miracles become an effective means to save mankind from disastrous error. Those who deny the possibility of the miraculous usually argue as though the physical were the sole order. And they conclude that it is inconceivable that God should mar its harmony by an exception. The divine government of the world must be considered in its entirety. When that is done, it will appear that the miraculous may have its due place in the whole, and may afford a signal example alike of God's wisdom and His mercy.

All that we have said about the antecedent probability of the miraculous acquires double force if there is question of a divine revelation. Theism affirms that such a thing is possible. And though theism does not necessarily involve belief in a revelation, yet, historically considered, the two are seen generally to go together. Indeed, if it is incumbent on all men, of whatever degree of culture, to recognize God as their last end and to direct their lives to Him, it must be admitted that a revelation is morally necessary. In view of the wide prevalence of error, how shall the uneducated, or the half-educated, and those who are occupied from morning to night with the urgent duties of daily life, attain to certainty regarding the most essential truths, if speculative reason be man's only guide. But if a revelation be given, it must be authenticated: a dubious revelation is none at all. It must be marked with the Divine character, and that in such a way as shall be plain to see, even for those who are uncultivated and ignorant. Here it is that miracles have their true function. Precisely as exceptions to the laws of nature, they fulfill their natural and appropriate office as the seal which authenticates the communication, the sign-manual putting its authority beyond all doubt, and as such suited to the capacity of all alike, whatever their condition or degree. Viewed as instruments for this end miracles have their own special place in the divine plan: and so far from being discordant notes marring an otherwise perfect scheme, they enter as integral elements into the total harmony.

In the light of what has been said the customary objections against miracles present very little difficulty. Some mention, however, must be made of the more important. It is urged that they are inconsistent with the Divine wisdom: that it is inconceivable that it should be needful for God to correct errors in the order which He has established. "To suppose," says an eminent Protestant divine, "that He by continual interventions sets at nought that whole system of His universe which is the manifestation of His Divine Reason, in order to remedy continual defects, is to reduce cosmos to chaos."{8} It will be observed that such an argument is only of force if it be assumed that the order of nature is the only order which God has instituted, and that miracles are requisite because it fails to achieve the purpose intended by God. No theist has ever explained miracles thus. We have seen that the change in the physical order is employed, not for an end proper to that order, but for one which lies outside its scope, viz., to manifest the personal intervention of God by a striking and unmistakable sign, and more particularly to authenticate a Divine message. Such an argument Inerely evinces that the writer who makes use of it has failed even to understand the theist position.

A more specious objection, though equally invalid, is that proposed by Kant, viz., that if we admit the possibility of exceptions in physical law, we have no guarantee that God may not act in the same way in regard to moral law; but that alterations in the moral law are inconceivable, since, were such exceptions possible, all our assurance regarding right and wrong action would be taken from us, and the foundations of morality would thus be overthrown. We have in substance replied to this difficulty earlier in the chapter (§ 2), and there is no need for us to discuss the point afresh. The moral law does not take its origin from the positive decree of God. Actions are right and wrong in themselves -- because they are what they are. It is as impossible for God to make a wrong action right as to make a triangle which shall not have three angles. And the will which deliberately adheres to a wrong action is, apart from all question of a Divine precept enjoining the moral law, an evil will. It is altogether otherwise as regards physical laws. Here we are dealing with what is absolutely dependent on the divine choice. God was in no way bound to give to this or that substance that special mode of action: and having given it, He remains free to alter it.

An argument frequently employed by the spokesmen of that scientific materialism which was so widespread during the latter half of the nineteenth century was the alleged incompatibility of miracles with physical science. Physical science, it was urged, consists in the power to predict the action of natural agents. Its very basis is the absolute uniformity of nature. Unless this principle be accepted as valid always and everywhere, science is at an end. But to assert the possibility of miracles is to call in question the universality of this principle, and equivalently to deny the worth of science. Yet the progress of the human race is neither more nor less than the ever-advancing march of science. Even the theist should see that miracles are irreconcilable with that supreme wisdom which he believes God to possess. So argued that vigorous disputant, Huxley. And the argument is still often advanced as though it were conclusive. Yet it is thoroughly fallacious. Science does not consist precisely in prediction. Its conclusions would not be rendered less valuable, even if a miraculous exception should occur: nor would the principle of uniformity, as rightly understood, be thereby shaken. Science consists in the knowledge of the universal as distinguished from the particular. We reach scientific knowledge when we pass from an experience of particular instances to a knowledge of the type: when we are able to affirm that the oak as such, or that iron as such, has these or those properties. But this knowledge is valid, even if in certain individual cases God should bring about exceptions to the rule. Even though on a given occasion fire should have no effect on a human body, it remains no less true that fire as such burns.

Nor is the principle of uniformity affected. The same cause in similar circumstances produces the same result, because the connection between agent and patient is one of true causal efficiency, and not a mere time-relation of antecedent and consequent. The reason of the effect is to be sought in the respective natures of the agent and the patient. The result is that of which such an agent is connaturally productive when it operates on such material. It follows that natural agents act with absolute uniformity. Reason compels us to hold that the Divine omnipotence has power to impede that uniformity, and to make the agent operate in an unwonted manner. But in admitting God's power to do this we are not invalidating the principle of the uniformity of nature.

Such are the chief controversial arguments brought to show the impossibility of miracles. In themselves they are of but little weight. As we said above, the real reason for the rejection of the miraculous is to be sought, not in these objections, but in the philosophical presuppositions of the opponents. Miracles are only conceivable if we admit the existence of a personal God distinct from the world which He has made. If nature be the All -- if there be no God, or if the universe be, not the work of His hands, but the necessary expression of His being -- then miracles are out of the question. It only remains for us now to speak of another mode of attack, viz., the contention that, however wonderful an event may be, it can never be certain that it is a divine sign: it may always be attributed to some unknown law of nature. The difficulty, it must be said, is a strange one: for it denies to God what is within the power of man. Men can find ways to guarantee their works as genuinely theirs: no one maintains that it is impossible to do this. Yet we are asked to believe that the wisdom and omnipotence of God find the task too much for them: that God is unable to stamp a work as His in such a manner as shall give us real certainty regarding its authorship. Surely this is the mere extravagance of controversy. Indeed, it is not hard to show that many of the events which claim to be miraculous are such that it is wholly impossible to refer them to unknown laws of nature. Such, e.g., is the instantaneous restoration of decayed tissue or of missing portions of bone. We know enough of the methods of nature's laboratory to be aware that the building up of flesh and bone, even when conditions are most favourable, takes place very gradually: that the cells are formed one by one out of materials furnished by the blood: that no medical skill can avail to make the process a rapid one. Bone is formed from the phosphate of lime which exists in the blood: and in case of a fracture this is slowly supplied to the broken ends to effect the consolidation. The amount of this salt contained in the blood at any one time is not more than twenty grains. If then a piece of bone is suddenly restored demanding far more phosphate of lime than the body contains, we have proof which admits of no question.{9} Even more clear, if possible, is the case of a raising from the dead. Here the essential condition of recovery is absent. For there can be no healing save through the instrumentality of the vital principle. Yet this, by reason of the havoc wrought in the body by natural sickness or by violence, has left it. If, then, some power does in fact restore the body, and further unites the soul to it again, that power can only be divine. In works which deal ex professo with miracles, the various criteria to be employed to distinguish true miracles from events, which may reasonably be attributed to the unexpected operation of created causes, meet with full discussion. To enter on this subject would carry us beyond our limits. It is sufficient for us to have shewn that God is able to work miracles, and to do so in such wise that it is evident beyond all possibility of doubt that the work proceeds from the divine omnipotence.

{1} See the passage from Physics, III., c. iii., cited above, p. 89. cf. Farges, Théorie de l'acte et de la puissance (Paris, 1895), p. 85; De Régnon, Métaphysique des causes, 1. iii. a. 3, p. 191.

{2} [Actio] transiens perficit non solum agens emanando ex ipso, sed etiam perficit effectum causando ipsum. Joan. a S. Thoma. Phil. Nat. I., q. 14, art. 4.

{3} St. Thomas Aq., Con. Gent., I., c. xxv., n. 8. "Quia potentiae activae objectum et effectus est ens factum (nulla autem potentia operationem habet ubi deficit ratio sui objecti, sicut visus non videt deficiente visibili in actu) oportet quod Deus dicatur non posse quidquid est contra rationem entis in quantum est ens, vel facti entis in quantum est factum."

{4} Leibniz attributes this opinion in its most uncompromising form to Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), a well-known covenanting divine, at one time professor of divinity at St. Andrews. "Samuel Retorfort, professeur en théologie en Ecosse dit positivement que rien n'est injuste ou moralement mauvais par rapport à Dieu et avant sa défense: ainsi sans cette défense il serait indifférent d'assassiner ou de sauver un homme, d'aimer Dieu ou de le haïr, de le louer ou de le blasphémer." Théodicée, &secr; 176,

{5} Mill broached the view in his Three Essays on Religion (1874), p. 36, seqq. It was noticed as an interesting speculation, but found no support.

{6} The Limits of Evolution and other Essays, by G. H. Howison (London, 1905), p. 73.

{7} On this important distinction, cf. McTaggart, Some Dogmas, etc., § 189.

{8} Dr. C. D'Arcy, Archbishop of Dublin, in a paper read at the Leicester Church Congress, 1919: see the Guardian for October 16, 1919, p 1,048.

{9} On this subject see Medical Proof of the Miraculous by Dr. E. Le Bec (Eng. trans. 1922).

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