But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.

-Luke 11:20


After I’ve finished my studies on the British Enlightenment with regards to the question of miracles I might do a full write up on the topic. For now I can only sketch a very skeleton outline as to the structure and logic of the British Enlightenment in their engagement as to the rationality of miracles.

Do Miracles Ground Religion or the Other way Round?

The problems of miracles with regards religious claim is a question of grounding. Do miracles validate a religion or does a religion validate a miracle? The Christian faith is by definition grounded upon a miraculous event, the resurrection of Christ without which the faith is in vain. Christ himself explicitly grounds his claims to divine kingship on his ability to perform miracles (“…if I by the finger of God cast out demons, you know that the Kingdom of God has come upon you.”)

The problem of course is that if miracles authenticates religious claims, then this may lead to a clash of religious claims. After all, there are many testimonies of miraculous events authenticating what seems to be many contradictory religious claims. Why should we accept the miraculous testimony of Christ as authenticating the tenets of the Christian faith if we have testimony of, say, miracles of Taoist priests or Buddhist monks, authenticating their own religious claims? If you say that their miracles are the work of demons, then why can’t we say the same thing about your miraculous claims? A miracle cannot authenticate your theological claims if those very same miracles needs to be authenticated by the same theological claims. How do miracles authenticate a religious claim without collapsing into such a circularity?

The Priority of Natural Theology 

The proto-Enlightenment British thinkers were very well aware of the circularity charge and it tested the limits of their rational powers. However they did not create an ad hoc theological system just to patch up the holes but in fact reached to a substantive understanding of the subtle interaction between natural and supernatural theology to understand the logic of miracles.

The British thinkers argued that we do not begin with revealed religion but with natural religion. They argued, based on other philosophical or rational premises, that it is possible for us to arrive at belief in God and a concept of natural law and the human good even without the benefit of special revelation or revealed religion. Thus they stressed the importance of natural theology and natural religion as partly constitutive of the Christian religion.

Therefore our reason, even without the benefit of special revelation, can already, with varying degrees of reliability, arrive at certain robust theological and evaluative principles. Alleged miraculous signs or testimonies of the divine will can be evaluated according to our prior understanding, via reason, of what constitutes the human good. A miracle, for example, whereby a person could miraculously get rid of the husband she doesn’t like, would automatically be discounted as an authentic miracle from God ot as a testimony of the divine will, since the very character of such a miracle contradicts our understanding of what divine goodness would deliberately will. Miracles of frivolities like jumping off buildings and surviving, acquiring a million dollars which one does not need, etc, would also not be counted as genuine testimonies of the divine will since they contradict our basic notion of what the divine will would will for our good, understood rationally, and not simply tickle our itch for spectacle.

Thus a lot of miracles whose objective effects and content are more for the benefit of stroking our itch for spectacles than for the contribution of human good would be simply discounted as authentic miracles from the outset. The miracles of Christ, which consists mainly of healing, feeding the multitude, and freeing from demonic forces, would already be in.

The argument for the rationality of miracles is therefore a lot more subtle than we think. It occurs within a prior framework of natural theology which gives us the rational resources for authenticating the validity of miracles in relation to its religious claims in a non-circular way. A combination of natural theology, natural law, and empirical testimony, jointly authenticates a miracle and its religious claims.

The “Good Miracles” of Heretics and Pagans

There remains many other miracles however which seems to be done for human benefit, even within the framework of our understanding of what constitutes human goodness, but yet are done by adherents of other religions. Unlike the Roman Catholics’s response to the “heretical” Jansenist miracles, consisting of just shuttering the miraculous site, the British Enlightenment thinkers engaged it with a subtlety which has not since been matched. The British thinkers first argued that not all miracles are “authenticating miracles”. Not all miracles are performed to testify to or authenticate a religious claim. Not every miracles are done “that you might know that the Kingdom of God has come upon you”. Some miracles are performed simply to achieve a certain good effect. Unless we think that God can only work through religious persons of impeccable theological orthodoxy, why should he not do good and heal someone simply because that person has no access to the Gospel or simply because the healer is of less than perfect orthodoxy? Why should God not keep alive the “sense of divinity” in all persons, heathen or Christian, by occasionally performing miracles amongst the heathens that he might keep alive in them the sense of the supernatural until the more perfect revelations of the Christian Gospel have arrived? How should such a miracle contradict the miraculous testimony of Christ’s miracles to Christ’s divine kingship?


The arguments of the British Enlightenment thinkers were rigorous, complex, subtle and above all, truly ingenious and the great pity is that their work and attempt at making sense of the rationality of miracles and its theological interpretation have more or less been forgotten today.

3 thought on “A Brief Outline of the Rational Structure of Miracles according to the British Enlightenment”
  1. Hello,

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog (via a link from Triablogue, I think). I find it interesting that you pursue and come to some of the same conclusions (at least broadly) that I have with regard to some of the things you write about. I discovered Popkin’s writings on skepticism some years ago (have you ever researched Savonarola’s role in this in the late 1400’s?).

    About this article, I’m also “researching”, although very minimally and desultorily, the British “enlightenment” era’s arguments involving Natural Theology, the role of Miracles, etc. When you say that you are finishing your “studies” in this, could you please elaborate? Which authors are you reading? I often track down such books, particularly reprints from that time, or use Archive.org to find these old books. I find that the modern understanding of what they were trying to do is way off. I agree with your sentiment that “The arguments of the British Enlightenment thinkers were rigorous, complex, subtle and above all, truly ingenious.”

    A blog (or email) about sources would provide a great guide.


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