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Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion

  • Peter Harrison (a1)


Readers of the New Testament could be excused for thinking that there is little consistency in the manner in which miracles are represented in the Gospels. Those events typically identified as miracles are variously described as “signs” (semeia), “wonders” (terata), “mighty works” (dunameis), and, on occasion, simply “works” (erga). The absence of a distinct terminology for the miraculous suggests that the authors of the Gospels were not working with a formal conception of “miracle”—at least not in that Humean sense of a “contravention of the laws of nature,” familiar to modern readers. Neither is there a consistent position on the evidentiary role of these events. In the synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus performs miracles on account of the faith of his audience. In John's Gospel, however, it is the performance of miracles that elicits faith. Even in the fourth Gospel, moreover, the role of miracles as signs of Christ's divinity is not straightforward. Thus those who demand a miracle are castigated: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Finally, signs and wonders do not provide unambiguous evidence of the sanctity of the miracle worker or of the truth of their teachings. Accordingly, the faithful were warned (in the synoptic Gospels at least) that “false Christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders [in order] to deceive.”



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1. See relevant entries in Kittel, G., ed., Theological Dictionary of the Neiv Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), 2:284317; 7:200–261; 8:113–26; Lattke, M., “New Testament Miracles Stories and Hellenistic Culture of Late Antiquity,” Listening 20 (1985): 5464.

2. This is hardly surprising, but is frequently overlooked in modern philosophical discussions of miracles. For David Hume's classic definition, see An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 114, 115, n.

3. “And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country and in his own house.’ And he did not do many mighty works [δυνάμεισ] there because of their unbelief” (Matt. 13:57 f.); “But when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs [σημεια] which he did” (John 2:23). On differences between John and the synoptic Gospels, see Perrin, Norman, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 225.

4. John 4:48. See also Matt. 12:38 f.; 16:4; Mark 8:11 f.; Luke 11:16, 29.

5. Mark 13:22. See also Matt. 24:24; Deut. 13:1–2; Rev. 13:1.

6. For previous treatments of miracles in relation to the natural sciences during this period, see Dear, Peter, “Miracles, Experiments, and the Ordinary Course of Nature,” Isis 81 (1990): 663–83; Daston, Lorraine, “Miraculous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991): 93124; and “Baconian Facts, Academic Civility, and the Prehistory of Objectivity,” Annals of Scholarship 8 (1991): 337–63; Harrison, Peter, “Newtonian Science, Miracles, and the Laws of Nature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56 (1995): 531–53, and “Prophecy, Early-Modern Apologetics, and Hume's Argument against Miracles,” Journal of the History of Ideas 60 (1999): 241–57.

7. On the origins of the notion of laws of nature, see Henry, John, “Metaphysics and the Origins of Modern Science: Descartes and the Importance of Laws of Nature,” Early Science and Medicine 9 (2004): 73114; Steinle, Friedrich, “The Amalgamation of a Concept—Laws of Nature in the New Sciences,” in Laws of Nature: Essays on the Philosophical, Scientific and Historical Dimensions, ed. Friedel, Weinert (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1995), 316–68; Zilsel, E., “The Genesis of the Concept of Scientific Law,” The Philosophical Review 51 (1942): 245–67; Needham, Joseph, “Human Laws and the Laws of Nature in China and the West,” Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): 332, 194231; Ruby, Jane, “The Origins of Scientific Law,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47 (1986): 341–59; Milton, J. R., “Laws of Nature,” in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, 2 vols., ed. Daniel, Garber and Michael, Ayers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1:680701. Specifically on theological influences, see Oakley, Francis, “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of Laws of Nature,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 30 (1961): 433–57; Foster, M. B., “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science,” Mind 43 (1934): 446–68; Padgett, Alan, “The Roots of the Western Concept of the ‘Laws of Nature’: From the Greeks to Newton,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55 (2003): 212–21.

8. See, for example, Hardon, John, “The Concept of Miracle from St. Augustine to Modern Apologetics,” Theological Studies 15 (1954): 229–57; Ward, Benedicta, Miracles and the Medieval Mind: Theory, Record and Event 1000–1215 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 35; Grant, Robert M., Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1952), 214–20.

9. Augustine, City of God, X.12: “Isn't the daily course of nature itself a miracle, something to be wondered at? Everything is full of marvels and miracles, but they are so common that we regard them as cheap and of no account.” Augustine, , Sermons VII, in Works of Saint Augustine, 20 vols., ed. Rotelle, John E. (New York: New City, 1997–), III/2:109.

10. Augustine, , De utilitate credendi XVI.34, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I (hereafter NPNF I), 14 vols., ed. Philip, Schaff and Henry, Wace (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 3:364.

11. Augustine, , City of God XXI.8, trans. Dods, Marcus (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 776. “For we give the name nature to the usual common course of nature; and whatever God does contrary to this, we call a prodigy, or a miracle. But against the supreme law of nature, which is beyond the knowledge both of the ungodly and of weak believers, God never acts, any more than He acts against Himself.” Contra Faustum, XXVI.3 (NPNF I, 4:321 f.). Cf. Sermons VII, in Works III/2:78, 86.

12. Augustine, , Confessions XXI.2930; XXVII, 42; Answer to the Pelagians XXXII.52; The Trinity II.vii.12; Expositions on the Psalms 9, 9; Sermons III; De utilitate credendi XVI.34.

13. Greer, Rowan, The Fear of Freedom: A Study of Miracles in the Roman Imperial Church (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989), esp. 171–79. See also Marcus, R. A., The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 149.

14. Aquinas, , Summa Contra Gentiles (hereafter SCG) 3b, 101, 5 vols., trans. English Dominican Fathers (London: Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, 1934), 4:60.

15. Aquinas, , SCG 3b, 100 (Dominican, Fathers ed., 4:58).

16. Aquinas, , SCG 3b, 99 (Dominican, Fathers ed., 4:57). Cf. Commentary on Aristotle's Physics II.viii.208. These events, while they take place within the sphere of nature, cannot be the subject of a “science” since they are accidental. See Aquinas, , Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle II.xi.8.2276.

17. Aquinas, , SCG 3b, 103. For a helpful discussion of the category of the preternatural, see Daston, , “Miraculous Facts and Miraculous Evidence.”

18. Aquinas, , SCG 3b, 99 (Dominican, Fathers ed., 4:57).

19. Aquinas, , Summa theologiae (hereafter ST) Ia2ae.lll, 4; 2a2ae. 171, 1; 2a2ae. 178, 1; 3a. 43, 1; SCG 4, 208.

20. Aquinas, , Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, chap. 6, lec. 1, sct. 843, trans. Weisheipl, James A. and Larcher, Fabien R. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1980), 341.

21. Hence, one believes and another does not, when both have seen the same miracle.” ST 2a2ae. 6, 1, 60 vols., trans. English Dominican Fathers (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 19641976), 31:167.

22. Aquinas, , ST la. 43, 3; Ia2ae. Ill, 5.

23. Those things that God requires us to believe “which surpass human intelligence … are to be proved by the authority of Holy Writ.” SCG 4.1 (Dominican, Fathers ed., 5:5); Cf. ST la.l, 8.

24. Augustine, , Against the Epistle of Manichaeus V.6, NPNF I, 4:131.

25. On medieval testing of miracle reports, see Smoller, Laura, “Defining the Boundaries of the Natural in Fifteenth Century Brittany: The Inquest into the Miracles of Saint Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419),” Viator 28 (1997): 333–59. The Council of Trent further formalized procedures for determining whether claimed miracles could be sanctioned as genuine. See Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, ed. and trans. Schroeder, H. J. (London: Herder, 1941), 217.

26. 1 John 4:1; 1 Cor. 12:10. Cf. Luke 12:56; Matt. 16:1–4; 1 Cor. 2:14; 14:29.

27. Aquinas, , SCG 3b, 154 (Dominican, Fathers ed., 4:201). Cf. ST Ia2ae. Ill, 4; 2a2ae, 171; Augustine, , The Trinity III.ii.18, in Works 1/5:137.

28. Foster, M. B., “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science”; Oakley, Francis, “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of Laws of Nature”; Osler, Margaret, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy: Gassendi and Descartes on Contingency and Necessity in the Created World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Harrison, Peter, “Voluntarism and Early Modern Science,” History of Science 40 (2002): 6389.

29. Sibiuda [Raymond Sebonde], Raymon, Theologia naturalis seu liber creaturarum, ed. Stegmüller, F. (Stuttgart-Bad Canstatt: F. Frommann, 1966), Prologus. The “Apology for Raymond Sebonde” may be found in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Frame, Donald (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958), 318457.

30. Walker, D. P., “The Cessation of Miracles,” in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, ed. Ingrid, Merkel and Alan, Debus (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988), 110–24. There were patristic precedents for this view. See Marcus, R. A., Gregory the Great and His World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 6263.

31. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. McNeill, J., trans. Battles, F. (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster, 1960), Prefatory Address, 1:1718, 136; 2:1467. Cf. Calvin, , Tracts and Treatises on the Reformation of the Church, 3 vols., trans. Beveridge, H. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1844), 1:92; Commentary on the Gospel According to John, in Calvin's Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 17:89 f., 180 f.; 18:281.

32. Aquinas, ST 2a2ae. 81, 5–6. In the same work, incidentally, Aquinas observes that “science” (scientia) also is primarily a habit of mind, and only secondarily a method or body of organized propositions. ST Ia2ae. 49, 1; Ia2ae. 50, 3; Ia2ae. 52, 2; Ia2ae. 53, 1.

33. Ficino, MarsilioOpera, 2 vols. (Basel: Ex officina Henrici Petrina, 1576), 1:6.

34. Zwingli, Ulrich, De vera et falsa religione commentarius [1525], in Huldreich Zwinglis sämtliche werke, 14 vols., ed. Emil, Egli and others (Berlin: Nachfolger, 1905–), 3:622912.

35. See, for example, Smith, W. C., The Meaning and End of Religion (London: SPCK, 1972); Harrison, Peter, “Religion” and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Despland, Michel, La religion en accident: évolution des idées et du vécu (Montréal: Fides, 1979); Lash, Nicholas, The Beginning and End of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Feil, Ernst, “From the Classical Religio to the Modern Religion: Elements of a Transformation between 1550 and 1650,” in Religion in History: The Word, the Idea, the Reality, ed. Michel, Despland and Gérard, Vallée (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1992), 3143, and Religio: Die Geschichte eines neuzeitlichen Grundbegriffs vom Frühchristentum bis zur Reformation (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1986).

36. Crouch, Nathaniel, The Strange and Prodigious Religions, Customs, and Manners, of Sundry Nations (London: Printed for Henry Rhodes, 1683), 27 f. Cf. Prideaux, Humphrey, A Letter to the Deists (London: Edward Castle, 1696), 30 f. and passim.

37. See, for example, Burnet, Gilbert, An Impartial Survey and Comparison of the Protestant Religion (London: R. Chiswell, 1685); Owen, John, A Brief and Impartial Account of the Nature of the Protestant Religion (London: J. A., 1682); Bradley, John, An Impartial View of the Truth of Christianity (London: W. Downing, 1699); Jenkin, Robert, The Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion (London: P. B. and R. Wellington, 1700); Stillingfleet, Edward, A Rational Account of Protestant Religion (London: D. White for H. Mortlock, 1665).

38. Locke, , Third Letter concerning Toleration, in The Works of John Locke, 12th ed., 10 vols. (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823), 6:401.

39. Boyle, , The Christian Virtuoso, in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 6 vols., ed. Thomas, Birch (Hildesheim: Olms, 1966), 5:531. Cf. 5:524: There are “three grand arguments, that jointly evince the truth of the Christian religion in general… the excellency of the doctrine, which makes it worthy to have proceeded from God; the testimony of divine miracles, that were wrought to recommend it; the great effects produced in the world by it.”

40. Clarke, Samuel, “The Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion,” in Works, 2 vols. (London: J. and P. Knapton, 1738), 2:695. See also Jenkin, Robert, The Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion, 3338; Sprat, Thomas, History of the Royal Society (London: T. R. for M. Martyn and J. Allestry), 352.

41. See Gaskin, J. C. A., Hume's Philosophy of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1988), 149 f.

42. Shapiro, Barabara, “Testimony in Seventeenth-Century English Natural Philosophy: Legal Origins and Early Development,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33 (2002): 243–63; Sargeant, R. M., “Scientific Experiment and Legal Expertise: The Way of Experience in Seventeenth-Century England,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 20 (1989): 1945.

43. Bacon, , The Advancement of Learning and A New Atlantis, ed. Arthur, Johnston (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 222.

44. Sprat, Thomas, History of the Royal Society, 358 f.

45. Boyle, , The Christian Virtuoso, in Works, 5:538. Cf. 5:531. For similar assertions of the role of natural philosophers in the assessment of miracle reports, see Anon, A Short Discourse concerning Miracles (London: Matt. Wotton, 1702); Filmer, Robert, An Advertisement to the Jurymen of England touching Witches (London: I. C. for Richard Royston, 1688); Gaule, John, Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches (London: W. Wilson for Richard Clutterbuck, 1646).

46. Aristotle, , Metaphysics 1027a; Aquinas, , SCG 3b, 99 (Dominican, Fathers ed., 4:57). See also Daston, , “Marvellous Facts and Miraculous Evidence,” 108–10.

47. More strictly, in Baconian terms, these subjects were appropriate for natural histories that would provide the foundation for a natural philosophy.

48. See, for example, Fuller, Thomas, The Holy State and the Profane State, 3rd ed. (London: R. Daniel for J. Williams, 1652), 39; White, John, The Way to the True Church, 2nd ed. (London: Richard Field for John Bill and William Barret, 1610), 301 f.; Scot, Reginald, The Discoverie of Witchcraft [1584] (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973), 125–34; Whiston, William, Mr. W's Account of the Exact Time when Miraculous Gifts Ceas'd in the Church (London: For the author, 1749), 7, 911. For the persistence of contemporary miracles amongst radical Protestants, see Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Scribners, 1971), 126–28; Moore, Rosemary, “Late Seventeenth-Century Quakerism and the Miraculous,” in Signs, Wonders, Miracles: Representations of Divine Power in the Life of the Church, ed. Kate, Cooper and Jeremy, Gregory (Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell, 2005), chap. 24.

49. See Harriso, , “Prophecy, Early-Modern Apologetics, and Hume's Argument against Miracles.”

50. Bacon, , The Great Instauration, in The Works of Francis Bacon, 14 vols., ed. James, Spedding, Robert, Ellis, and Douglas, Heath (London: Longmans, 18571874), 4:28.

51. On the role of witness and testimony in experimental natural philosophy, see Shapin, Steven, The Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), esp. 211–42; Schaffer, Simon, “Godly Men and natural Philosophers,” Science in Context 1 (1987): 5585; Dear, Peter, “Miracles, Experiments, and the Ordinary Course of Nature,” Isis 81 (1990): 663–83.

52. Augustine, , Contra Faustum Manichaeum XXVI, 3 (NPNF I, 4:322). Miracles never transgress “the supreme law of nature, which is beyond the knowledge both of the ungodly and of weak believers” (NPNF I, 4:321).

53. Glanvill, Joseph, Philosophia Pia (London: J. Macock for James Collins, 1671), 84.

54. See, for example, Boyle, , A Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things (London: H. C. for John Taylor, 1688), 213.

55. Boyle, , Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection (London: T. N. for H. Herringman, 1675), preface.

56. Boyle, , Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, in Works, 2:15; cf. 2:6, 20.

57. Boyle, , Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, in Works, 2:63.

58. Shapin, Steven, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2.

59. Shapin, , Social History of Truth, 209.

60. There are happy exceptions. See, for example, the historical treatment of Burns, R. M., The Great Debate on Miracles: From Joseph Glanvill to David Hume (London: Bucknell University Press, 1981). More philosophical, yet still historically informed, is Earman, John, Hume's Abject Failure: The Argument against Miracles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

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