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HUME'S ARGUMENT AGAINST THE JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN MIRACLES.
IT is argued by Hume against the actual occurrence of the Jewish and Christian miracles, that whereas "it is experience only which gives authority to human testimony, and it is the same experience which assures us of the laws of nature," therefore, "when these two kinds of experience are contrary" to each other, "we are bound to subtract the one from the other;" and, in consequence, since we have no experience of a violation of natural laws, and much experience of the violation of truth, "we may establish it as a maxim that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.'
I will accept the general proposition, but I resist its application. Doubtless it is abstractedly more likely that men should lie than that the order of nature should be nfringed; but what is abstract reasoning to a question of concrete fact? To arrive at the fact of any matter, we must eschew generalities, and take things as they stand, with all their circumstances. À priori, of course the acts of men are not so trustworthy as the order of nature, and the pretence of miracles is in fact more common than the Occurrence. But the question is not about miracles in general, or men in general, but definitely, whether these particular miracles, ascribed to the particular Peter, James, and John, are more likely to have been or not; whether they are unlikely, supposing that there is a Power, external to the world, who can bring them about; supposing
1 Works, vol. iii. p. 17; ed. 1770.
they are the only means by which He can reveal Himself to those who need a revelation; supposing He is likely to reveal Himself; that He has a great end in doing so; that the professed miracles in question are like His natural works, and such as He is likely to work, in case He wrought miracles; that great effects, otherwise unaccountable, in the event followed upon the acts said to be miraculous; that they were from the first accepted as true by large numbers of men against their natural interests; that the reception of them as true has left its mark upon the world, as no other event ever did; that, viewed in their effects, they have—that is, the belief of them has-served to raise human nature to a high moral standard, otherwise unattainable: these and the like considerations are parts of a great complex argument, which so far can be put into propositions, but which, between, and around, and behind these, is implicit and secret, and cannot by any ingenuity be imprisoned in a formula, and packed into a nut-shell. These various conditions may be decided in the affirmative or in the negative. That is a further point; here I only insist upon the nature of the argument, if it is to be philosophical. It must be no smart antithesis which may look well on paper, but the living action of the mind on a great problem of fact; and we must summon to our aid all our powers and resources, if we would encounter it worthily, and not as if it were a literary essay. ("Grammar of Assent," p. 298.)
GIBBON'S "FIVE CAUSES."
GIBBON has mentioned five causes in explanation of [the rise and establishment of Christianity], viz. the zeal of Christians, inherited from the Jews; their doctrine of a future state; their claim to miraculous power; their virtues; and their ecclesiastical organization. Let us briefly con
He thinks these five causes, when combined, will fairly account for the event; but he has not thought of accounting for their combination. If they are ever so available for his purpose, still that availableness arises out of their coincidence, and out of what does that coincidence arise? Until this is explained, nothing is explained, and the question had better have been let alone. These presumed causes are quite distinct from each other, and, I say, the wonder is, what made them come together. How came a multitude of Gentiles to be influenced with Jewish zeal? How came zealots to submit to a strict, ecclesiastical régime? What connexion has such a régime with the immortality of the soul? Why should immortality, a philosophical doctrine, lead to belief in miracles, which is a superstition of the vulgar? What tendency had miracles and magic to make men austerely virtuous? Lastly, what power had a code of virtue, as calm and enlightened as that of Antoninus, to generate a zeal as fierce as that of Maccabæus? Wonderful events before now have apparently been nothing but coincidences, certainly; but they do not become less wonderful by cataloguing their constituent causes, unless we also show how these came to be constituent.
However, this by the way; the real question is this
are these historical characteristics of Christianity, also in matter of fact, historical causes of Christianity? Has Gibbon given proof that they are? Has he brought evidence of their operation, or does he simply conjecture in his private judgment that they operated? Whether they were adapted to accomplish a certain work, is a matter of opinion; whether they did accomplish it is a question of fact. He ought to adduce instances of their efficiency before he has a right to say that they are efficient. And the second question is, what is this effect, of which they are to be considered as causes? It is no other than this, the conversion of bodies of men to the Christian faith. Let us keep this in view. We have to determine whether these five characteristics of Christianity were efficient causes of bodies of men becoming Christians? I think they neither did effect such conversions, nor were adapted to do so, and for these reasons :—
I. For first, as to zeal, by which Gibbon means, party spirit, or esprit de corps; this doubtless is a motive principle when men are already members of a body, but does it operate in bringing them into it? The Jews were born in Judaism, they had a long and glorious history, and would naturally feel and show esprit de corps; but how did party spirit tend to bring Jew or Gentile out of his own place into a new society, and that a society which as yet scarcely was formed into a society? Zeal, certainly, may be felt for a cause, or for a person; on this point I shall speak presently; but Gibbon's idea of Christian zeal is nothing better than the old wine of Judaism decanted into new Christian bottles, and would be too flat a stimulant, even if it admitted of such a transference, to be taken as a cause of conversion to Christianity without definite evidence, in proof of the fact. Christians had zeal for Christianity after they were converted, not before.
2. Next, as to the doctrine of a future state. Gibbon seems to mean by this doctrine the fear of hell; now certainly in this day there are persons converted from sin to a religious life by vivid descriptions of the future punishment of the wicked; but then it must be recollected that such persons already believe in the doctrine thus urged upon them. On the contrary, give some tract upon hellfire to one of the wild boys in a large town, who has had no education, has no faith; and, instead of being startled by it, he will laugh at it as something frightfully ridiculous. The belief in Styx and Tartarus was dying out of the world at the time that Christianity came, as the parallel belief now seems to be dying out in all classes of our own society. The doctrine of eternal punishment does only anger the multitude of men in our large towns now, and make them blaspheme; why should it have had any other effect on the heathen populations in the age when our Lord came? Yet it was among those populations that He and His made their way from the first. As to the hope of eternal life, that doubtless, as well as the fear of hell, was a most operative doctrine in the case of men who had been actually converted, of Christians brought before the magistrate, or writhing under torture; but the thought of eternal glory does not keep bad men from a bad life now, and why should it convert them then from their pleasant sins, to a heavy, mortified, joyless existence, to a life of ill-usage, fright, contempt, and desolation?
3. That the claim to miracles should have any wide influence in favour of Christianity among heathen populations, who had plenty of portents of their own, is an opinion in curious contrast with the objection against Christianity which has provoked an answer from Paley, viz. that "Christian miracles are not recited or appealed to, by early Christian writers themselves, so fully or so