Miracles: Are they Natural or Supernatural
Are they Natural or Supernatural.
BY. REV. J. K. INGALLS.
This question has been repeatedly discussed; at least one side of it; but would it be altogether improper to review, with candor, the other side likewise? It is the province of wisdom to “prove all things,” while only the good should be retained. The position and grounds of those who contend that miracles are unnatural, it is unnecessary to state, as they are before the public.
Those who contend that all miraculous phenomena are to be referred to the operations of natural law; believe that every thing acts in accordance with the power and wisdom bestowed upon it by the Creator. For instance; if he has bestowed upon me the physical strength of two ordinary men, my corresponding action will be wonderful, miraculous, to those who are not able to perform half the labor; and yet there might be in it no “art, which any man might learn.” So with mental and moral; and, what may be called, vital power. These will develope phenomena in accordance with their strength, and will be inferior or superior, ordinary or extraordinary, commonplace or wonderful, in exact proportion to the strength and nature of their producing causes. Perhaps it would be well to explain what we mean by nature before deciding whether any thing is in accordance with it.— Those who lake the above ground assert that the principal law of nature is this: that every effect must have an adequate cause, and that like causes produce like effects. Now there can be no phenomena of any description, but must conform to this rule, consequently, when we behold new or strange developments, they appear unnatural, only because we are not acquainted with their cause, or a similar one. To say that the relation of the causes and effects with which we are acquainted, constitute all nature; and that if any different effects are manifested, they result from no cause at all, would evince a miserable stupidity of mind; and yet we do this whenever we claim that nature’s laws are suspended;—for no suspension between a cause and an effect can produce a causation. But it may be asked, “cannot God, at that point step in and do that which he sees necessary to be done?” If God “created the Universe,” once, “as he saw fit,” and now only gives it occasionally a “check of the reign,” or slops the wheels to make a repair, or change in the government, then indeed that supposition might be treated with some respect, but if “He works hitherto,” and “evermore,” then no such emergency can arise. It maybe said that, though God has usually employed means, and only produced effects through causes, yet he can just as well, “for an adequate purpose;” work without means! There is, however, “an adequate purpose” acknowledged to be necessary. But we are not told what this may be, nor whether it would not have been effected in harmony with his own laws; especially if a wise, as well as Omnipotent Law-giver! Perhaps the slaughter of a few, thousand of his children, or the recovery of a sick king, would be an adequate cause for his suspending the action of the spheres and causing the sun to “stand still,” or even “go back ten degrees upon the dial of Ahaz”—not however in my estimation; Again, the whole orthodox world, I suppose, would say that the “salvation of a soul” was an adequate cause, why the almighty should suspend the law which visits “tribulation, and anguish upon every soul that doeth evil,” and “perform a work in opposition to it”—the punishing of an “innocent being in their stead! It is certainly strange that Universalists, who are so tenacious about the immutable nature of God’s moral Government, should still hold to the exploded notion in other things, that God may be. subject to change in his Omnipotent sway. If he may suspend one law, he may all laws; and with what consistency ban we say that his moral law is unchanging, while his physical laws are subject to repeated interruption? Has not He appealed himself, to the stability of nature, to convince us of the certainty of his purposes of grace being accomplished! (see Jer., xxxiiii: 20,) “Thus saith the Lord, If ye can break my covenant of the day, and my covenant of the night, so that there be not day and night in their season, then may also my covenant be broken with David, my servant.” We may speculate, if we have no more useful employment, upon what the Supreme Being might do, if be had the mind; and so we might affirm that he could lie, although the Bible says he cannot: for if “the Great Lawgiver is (so much) superior to any of nature’s laws,” that he can lie in a physical sense, so there should not be day and night, in their season, he can also; according to his Own admission above, lie morally, so that the wicked shall go unpunished, the innocent suffer for the guilty, and his purposes and covenant of grace wherein he proposes “to gather together in one all things In Christ,” may be forever suspended; and a work performed in direct opposition thereto.
To such a conclusion does the hypothesis, assumed for supernatural or unnatural miracles, lead us. But not this alone; it stops not with sapping the foundations of our trust in God’s faithfulness, and the immutable character of his righteous government: it goes beyond and strikes at the basis of all hope of immortality.—For what language does it hold with regard to the resurrection? “And the miracle of Christ’s resurrection: does it accord with nature, that a person should rise from the dead, or would such an event be directly opposite to nature? No conclusion remains, but that Christ was raised from the dead by the immediate agency of God.” No inference can be drawn from the foregoing, but that Jesus was guilty of the greatest folly in attempting to prove that the “dead are raised,” and that all “live to God;” while the Saducees were entirely consistent In Saying that it was “directly opposite to nature!” Paul, too, must have been beside himself, by attempting to prove the same thing from the analogy of the seed which “is not quickened except it die!” May we be informed where God has promised to’ raise us up by his “ Immediate agency;” or to suspend his laws so that we may “live again?” or whether that would be a suspension which occurred so often and so universal? If “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ Shall all be made alive,” I ask whether one is more unnatural than! the other? Certainly, if we call that natural which is general, for one is as general as the other.
Having said thus much in generals, let us notice some of the particulars; and let us not be terrified by the assertion that we “come directly in contact with the claim of Moses, and brand; him a Liar.” It is well known to close Biblical students, that in ancient times every thing was ascribed to God; not only of a good, but also of an evil character. Every thought, word, action, I and phenomenon, was supposed to depend on the “immediate agency of God.” It was in this Way Moses felt himself culled upon to deliver the children of Israel from their bondage. Himself impressed with the superstitious notions of the age, every circumstance, that reminded him of his duty, and brought their condition vividly before him, was interpreted as a direction of God, both to himself and them. That he was unwilling to be their deliverer is equally true, as many men are unwilling to perform what they know to be their duty, and yet arc compelled by force of conscience. In this nineteenth century I have heard men relate as marvellous things as those related by Moses, and assure us they were unwilling to speak to the people, on account of the cross, and yet speak because they thought God directed them to do so. We hear of men being called of God to. preach, and to engage in various works of revivals, &c, yet we are not ready to “brand them as liars,” or question their sincerity.
That such were the opinion’s prevalent in those times, there is abundant evidence, to prove; It is said that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart; and the same thing is evidently meant in both cases; and no doubt the Deity had as much “immediate agency” in doing that, as he had in helping Moses work his miracles. It is also said that the Lord commanded certain warriors to attack cities, and burn and destroy “men, women and children, and leave none alive;” (and it is certainly desirable that such laws should be suspended;) but we are not authorized to say that they were not sent of Him, in the same sense in which Moses was sent to be the guide and deliverer of the Israelites; nor are we to say that they were impostors or liars, when they have represented things as they appeared to them, and honestly expressed their opinions of things. For my part, I can conceive of no greater impiety; than to give a literal interpretation to many passages of a kindred character: for instance, the 23d chapter of Exodus, from, the 10th verse to the end; where not only a literal contradiction occurs, but the Mormon idea is established, of the corporeal existence of the Deity. We must use more reason and latitude in the interpretation of scripture, or yield ourselves to the just sneers and scoffs of unbelievers, and abandon the Bible to their ridicule. We find that sceptics, I generally, agree that the Bible teaches the doctrines of the Trinity, vicarious atonement, endless misery, total depravity and unnatural miracles, and, on this, base their hostility; and the course pursued! by the Christian world, has only I more confirmed them therein. Drs. of Divinity have attempted to show the naturalness and reason of these doctrines, at the same time they are claiming them to be unnatural, hostile to nature and to reason; endeavoring to compel belief by stating them in still more unreasonable terms; and by appealing to still more inconsistent relations for confirmation.
As for the miracles of the New Testament there is no such claim put forth for them. In the most simple style they are related, without the assumption that the truth of Christ’s teachings depended on their occurrence, or if it had, a question still back of this arises, whether Jesus employed natural means to effect his work, of whether he worked without means. Did he heal the sick without first removing the disease! Did he cause the blind to see without restoring the organ of vision? Did he restore the leper without cleansing him of his leprosy? or is there any proof that he suspended the laws of nature and produced effects without cause? On the other hand, is it not evident that his wisdom and power were equal to the work he performed? You might just as well say, that the Hydropathist suspends the laws of nature, because he dispels in a few hours, or even minutes, a fever which the M. D’s tell you must run its course for several weeks. He works according to his wisdom and power, they do the same, Jesus did no more, nor, (with reverence be it said,) can the Deity do more.
If God’s system of Government is the best that could have been established, then there can be no necessity for the suspension of one of his laws, for the development of another; so that we are not in reality discussing whether the Lawgiver cannot set aside his laws or suspend them at pleasure; but simply, whether an infinitely wise Lawgiver has not established such as will never conflict with each other or with the accomplishment of all his purposes, for the moral and spiritual elevation of his intelligent creation. If the advocates of unnatural miracles will meet the question here, upon its proper ground, our labor will be light, for the position of that man cannot be an enviable one, who contends that God has reserved “to himself the power to govern, change or unmake” the universe again (for an adequate purpose,) and at the same time assents to the proposition that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of a turning.” Perhaps, however, this adequate purpose may refer to some gifts which are not good or perfect; as, for instance, when he sends “them strange delusion, that they might believe a lie, that they might be damned.” But it is said, we must interpret such passages so as to make them harmonize wit the general teachings respecting God’s character, and those well known laws of mind, whereby error begets infatuation and a perverseness of heart which indicates its own condemnation. But if he can send delusion without “immediate agency” and intervention of physical or mental laws, it is speaking but very poorly for the perfection of his government to say, that he cannot send instruction, and cause to be brought to light “life and immortality,” with other good and perfect gifts, unless he shall “suspend some one or all of his laws, and perform work in direct opposition to them.”
I may not be able to give a satisfactory interpretation to every passage in the Bible, which the wonder loving “claim to be works performed in opposition to natural causation, and by the direct and special agency of God;” nor do I propose attempting it. What has been said will aid the reader in respect to most passages of the Old Testament, the writers of which were sincere, and gave their revelations in such language as was understood at the time, and put forth such claims as, in this sense were real. Here are two however which require especial attention; I mean those in Joshua and Isaiah, respecting the suspension of the law which gives day and night. The one in Joshua, is confessedly an interpolation; the quotation from the book Jasher, being acknowledged. The reader can also see that the narrative would read much more connectedly, if the 12th and 14th verses inclusive, (10 chapter) were entirely omitted. It is, besides, of a poetic character, so that if it was genuine, it would not prove that we should understand it literally. The same objection will apply to the passage in Isaiah. It is worthy of remark that the reason which is given in a popular work on Astronomy, for the visit of the ministers of the king of Babylon to Hezekiah, is any thing but a true one.—They did not visit him to ascertain the truth of an astronomical phenomena, but to spy out his treasures; although they might have used this as a pretense, if they had supposed, he was impressed with such a superstition. The passage of the Red Sea is described in glowing language, and portrays the sentiment of a people thus seasonably delivered from the jaws of destruction. Gen. Green was thrice delivered by the timely inundation of some three rivers in succession, which interposed their flood and saved his retreating forces from a vengeful foe. Our forefathers regarded this as truly providential, and I can but feel that the purpose was as adequate for intervention in one case as in the other. If the reader will look into the 5th chapter of Judges he will read that when the Lord went out of Seir, and marched out of the field of Edom, “the earth trembled, the heavens dropped, and the mountains melted,” but whether for an adequate purpose is not said. In the 10th chapter of Joshua, it is said: “The Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon the Amorites;” a phrase as indicative of immediate and special agency as any we call to mind, and yet, unfortunately for the miracle monger, it is immediately added: “They were more which died with the hailstones than they which the children of Israel slew with the sword.”
There are some miracles recorded in the New Testament which it will be difficult to explain in accordance with our understanding of nature’s laws, and the relation of cause and effect. But, shall we say, because our knowledge is not sufficiently perfect to see their agreement with nature, that therefore it does not exist. How absurd!—As though we understood all the divine laws, and could trace all effects to their causes! If, however, we make due allowance for the hyperbolic language in which much of the New Testament is written, and also for the accommodation of its style to the comprehension of an ignorant and superstitious age, their number will be greatly reduced. I submit to the candid mind, whether it is less honorable for God or consoling to man, to believe that the Deity exercises, at all times, an unchanging and uncontrollable sway over his universe, impelling every portion towards ultimate perfection; and that his laws have been constituted and instituted with this direct object in view, so that the redemption of his intelligent creation, their spiritual and immortal advancement shall result as the glorious consummation to the whole order of his providence, the harmonious operation of every department of a perfected whole; or, to believe that “God created the Universe, in the beginning, as he intended it should remain through all coming time,” and that “to break the spirit’s prison bars, and to reveal to its comprehension a spiritual Father, and spiritual things,” it was necessary, he should make an “exception;”—“perform works in opposition” to his previous laws, and hold the whole dread order of the Universe in suspense, that he might accomplish that, but to secure which, the material creation never would have had an existence.
I object to this whole system of reasoning, which is admitted to be in opposition to reason. The idea that truth can be substantiated by such anomalous acts, is as ridiculous as it has proved baneful to the intellectual and spiritual growth of mankind. Truth appeals either to the reason, in which case it may be demonstrated, analogically, or to the spiritual interior, in which case it is known intuitively, and its pompous clothing or accompaniments can in neither case be of the least consequence. It is only in a false state that man substitutes impressions of outward manifestations, for internal convictions, arid the vagaries of a wonder loving imagination for the exercise of the divine powers of reason. But when a false and arbitrary standard of truth is set up, an artificial test which we may not question, at the peril of damnation, no wonder that our judgments become dwarfed, our conceptions of God and of his plans of grace should be rendered exceedingly narrow and superficial, so tint we might be led to suppose, that He, who had made all worlds, and governs them by harmonious laws, all beings and conditions of being, could not give his child a revelation without outraging his divine economy; or intimate td him his heavenly inheritance, or even secure it to hint, without making any “exception” in his rule and government. Strange we should be such greedy seekers after “signs” as to go back through the mystified interpretations which men have put upon a book, when its own teaching would require us to reason! Strange, that we can turn aside With such feelings of wonder when we read that five thousand have been miraculously fed, and feel such strength of faith that a God did exist; when every day a thousand millions are fed in the present, by him, who opens his “hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing!” That we should close our eyes to the light of that day which utters speech, and that night which shews forth knowledge, and seek some poetic or fabled account of the suspension of those laws which bring them in their season! That tradition should have so completely blinded our perceptions of inherent truth that we can be satisfied with the sham and outward semblance! When nature, and a revelation according to nature, teach us, that “what may be known of God is manifest—for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead!” Or that we should become so lost in our attachment to the “letter which killeth,” as to be rendered Insensible to the “spirit which giveth life!” Like Mary, many seem to seek and to put their trust in the dead body of their Lord. Do not, they say, take away the face of this covering cast over all people! Let not the light shine into this tomb of Superstition! We believe our Lord is there, though dead! And when the light is permitted to enter, like her, they dole a mournful try, “ye have stolen away my Lord; and I know not where ye have laid him.” And the enquiry propounded to her may not be inapplicable now: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” If, then, we would strengthen our faith, let us “consider the lilies of the field, the teaching of the germinating grain “which is not quickened except it die,” and believe that, in perfect harmony with, not in direct opposition to the order of God’s providence, when the earthly house of this tabernacle shall be dissolved, we shall be clothed upon with a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal and in the heavens.
For my own part, I find abundant confirmation of the existence of God in the wonderful order and harmony of nature, in the contemplation which tells me I am “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and in the progressive tendency of all things, material and spiritual, I read my own immortality; but I do not and cannot believe that this is to result in consequence of a suspension of any of the divine laws, but rather in perfect harmony with them, and as one of the grand aims in their establishment.
Southold, L. I., Sept. 1.