Synopsis. --The Question, Both Old and New, Now Confronting Theologians. --Their Recent Retreat Upon the Minimum of Miracle. --The Present Conflict of Opinion in the Church.
The present line of thought has now reached the point where an important question confronts us, -- a question not wholly new. Within the memory of living men theologians have been compelled to ask themselves: What if the geologists should establish facts that contradict our Biblically derived doctrine that the universe was made in a week? Again have they been constrained to put to themselves the question: What if the evolutionists should supersede our doctrine that the creation is the immediate product of successive fiats of the Creator by showing that it came gradually into existence through the progressive operation of forces immanent in the cosmos? Still again have they had to face the question: What if modern criticism by the discovery of demonstrable errors in the Sacred Writings should fault our doctrine that, as the Word of God, the Bible is free from all and every error? In every instance the dreaded concession, when found at length to be enforced by modern learning, has been found to bring, not the loss that had been apprehended, but clear gain to the intellectual interests of religion. Now it is this same sort of question which returns with the uncertainties and difficulties widely felt in the Church to be gathering over its hitherto unvexed belief in miracles as signs of a divine activity more immediate than it has recognized in the regular processes of Nature.

The majority of uneducated Christians still hold, as formerly in each of the points just mentioned, to the traditional view. Miracle as a divine intervention in the natural order, a more close and direct divine contact with the course of things than is the case in ordinary experience, they regard as the inseparable and necessary concomitant and proof of a divine Revelation. To deny miracles, thus understood, is censured as equivalent to denial of the reality of the Revelation. But it is rather surprising, because it is rare, to find a man of such note in literature as Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll affirming[35] that one cannot be a Christian without believing at least two miracles, the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of the Christ. Without comment on the significance of this retreat upon the minimum of miracle, it must here be noted that a minority of the Church, not inferior to their brethren in learning and piety, believe that there are no tides in God's presence in Nature, that his contact with it is always of the closest: --

"Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands or feet."

All natural operations are to them divine operations. "Nature," said Dr. Martineau, "is God's mask, not his competitor." While his agency in Nature may be recognized at one time more than at another, it exists at any time fully as much as at any other. In the interest of this fundamental truth of religion they affirm that miracles in the traditional sense of the word, and in their traditional limitation to the small measure of time and space covered by Biblical narratives, never occurred. Events reputed miraculous have indeed occurred, but simply as unusual, inexplicable phenomena in the natural order of things, the natural products of exceptionally endowed life, and, whether in ancient time or modern, the same sort of thing the world over. To the argument that this involves denial of a supernatural Revelation they reply that it is mere reasoning in a circle. For if one begs the question at the outset by defining supernatural Revelation as revelation necessarily evidenced by miraculous divine intervention, then, of course, denial of this is denial of that, and how is the argument advanced? But, besides this, the question-begging definition is a fallacious confusing of the contents of the Revelation with its concomitants, and of its essentially spiritual character with phenomena in the sphere of the senses.

The turning-point in this argument between the two parties in the Church has been reached in the antipodal change, already referred to, from the old to the new apologetics, -- a change whose inevitable consequences do not yet seem to be clearly discerned by either party in the discussion. The contention that denial of miracles as traditionally understood carries denial of supernatural Revelation has been virtually set aside, with its question-begging definition and circular reasoning, by the apologetics now current among believers in at least a minimum of miracle in the traditional sense of the word, -- especially in the two chief miracles of the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus. As an eminent representative of these the late Dr. A. B. Bruce may be cited. These adduce "the moral miracle," the sinlessness of Jesus, as evidential for the reality of the physical miracles as its "congruous accompaniments." "If," says Dr. Bruce, "we receive Him as the great moral miracle, we shall receive much more for His sake."[36] But what a turn-about of the traditional argument on the evidences! The older apologetes argued: This crown of miraculous power bespeaks the royal dignity of the wearer. The modern apologete reasons: This royal character must have a crown of miraculous power corresponding with his moral worth. In this antipodal reverse of Christian thought it is quite plain that for evidential purposes the miracle is stripped of its ancient value. And it has already been observed that modern knowledge has now transferred many of the Biblical miracles to the new rooms discovered for them in the natural order of things. It is not premature, therefore, for leaders of Christian thought to put once more to themselves the question, constantly recurring as learning advances: What theological readjustment should we have to make, if obliged to concede that the ancient belief in miracle is not inseparable from belief in a supernatural Revelation, not indispensable to belief therein? What modified conception must we form, if constrained to admit that the living God, ever immanent in Nature, intervenes in Nature no more at one time than another? What, indeed, but a revised and true in place of a mistaken conception of the term Supernatural?


[35] "The Church asks, and it is entitled to ask the critic: Do you believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ?... If he replies in the negative, he has missed the way, and has put himself outside of the Church of Christ." -- The Church's One Foundation, p.4. [Note that "Incarnation" and "Resurrection" are terms which Dr. Nicoll construes as denoting physical miracles.]

What Dr. Nicoll here means by "outside of the Church" he indicates by saying elsewhere, that philosophers who reckon goodness as everything, and miracles as impossible, "are not Christians" (op. cit., p.10).

This conditioning of Christian character upon an intellectual judgment concerning the reality of remote occurrences is both unbiblical and unethical, as well as absurd when practically applied. Some years since, Dr. E. A. Abbott, who admits no miracle in the life of Christ, published a book, The Spirit on the Waters, in which he inculcated the worship of Christ. Yet, according to Dr. Nicoll, such a man is no Christian!

[36] The Miraculous Element in the Gospels, p.353.

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