In my previous post I sketched an outline to a framework for addressing the problem evaluating rival miracles, and promised that I would develop Scotus’s argument concerning the miracles of the Antichrist. This post cashes in that promise.
As my previous post says, there was a pretty obvious objection to this logical link between miracles and authentication of the theological message. If the miracles of Jesus authenticated his gospel, would the miracles of the devil or Antichrist also authenticate their message? John Duns Scotus in his Ordinatio engages this objection head on (to my knowledge, he’s the only major medieval scholastic to do so):
it be said that miracles… do not testify to the truth, because even Antichrist will perform miracles…
What is Scotus’s answer? We need first to backtrack a little to understand his argument for miraculous evidence for the Gospel. He argues:
the clearness and evidence of miracles, the thing is plain thus: God cannot be a false witness; but God himself, when invoked by a preacher of the Scripture to show that its doctrine was true, performed some work proper to himself, and thereby bore witness that what he preached was true. There is a confirmation from Richard [of St. Victor] in On the Trinity I ch.2: “Lord, if it is an error, we have been by you deceived, for your deeds have been confirmed by signs so great that they can only have been done by you.”
Scotus as such believes that miracles are a work “proper” to God, and miracles as such provide a unique form of divine testimony to an oracle or prophet of a divine message. It isn’t explicit what “proper” means, but later on, after looking at this answer to the objection of the Antichrist, we can attempt to develop and explicate his argument here.
So to go back to the objection of the miracles of the Antichrist Scotus answers:
it can be said that if anyone, after being summoned as a witness, should permit some customary sign of bearing witness to be adduced and, although present, should not contradict it, such silence does not cohere with perfect truthfulness; but a miracle is such a sign of God as witness; therefore if he should permit miracles to be performed by demons and not contradict them, namely by declaring that they are not his testimonies, he does not seem to be perfectly truthful, which is impossible. And hereby is the response to what is said of Antichrist, because God predicted that the miracles to be done were not testimonies of the truth, as is clear in Matthew 24.24 and 2 Thessalonians 2.8-9.
Personally I think this is a brilliant answer based on a courtroom analogy, but I would like to develop and make this argument tighter and to smooth out what I think are some logical sequencing problems.
Scotus argues that miracles are a unique sign of God as a witness, but if God does not answer or contradict a malicious miraculous testimony in His name, He cannot be said to be “perfectly truthful”. The concept appealed to here is what is known as the “law of adverse inferences”. The law of adverse inferences is the idea that if the accused to a crime refuses to answer some question or explain himself, the judge may direct the jury to draw whatever “adverse inferences” they may deem fit from the accused’s silence or refusal to answer. Very few common law jurisdictions have such a law of evidence because of its obvious effects on the right to silence. Whereas everyone obviously agrees that everyone has the right to silence in the sense that nobody should be punished nor tortured for refusing to answer questions, however in America and in many other common law jurisdictions the right to silence is so absolute that neither the judge nor the lawyers can even comment or draw any attention to the accused silence or refusal to answer any questions at any point from arrest to trial. (During the Rittenhouse trial when the prosecutor made even a causal remark that Rittenhouse didn’t mention something when he was questioned by the police, the cookie judge roasted his ass from the bench.)
With this concept we are now in a position to develop Scotus’s argument. Suppose a wonder worker were to claim to bear a message from the Lord God, but is in fact a deceiver, and invoking the name of God, he calls upon God to bear witness to his message and confirms this by a miracle. Now God in this position could be charge with lying and deceit if He allows a deceiver to invoke His name to confirm a false message. If the audience to the miracle were to pray, are you deceiving us with a false message, and if God remains silent and does not answer the miracle of the deceiver, we can draw “adverse inferences” against God for remaining silent in the face of being accused of deceit.
However, as Scotus points out, this is impossible for God who is perfectly truthful himself. So if a deceiver invokes the name of God to confirm a false message by miracle, God cannot remain silent and should answer that miracle by another miracle which unambiguously shows who’s the true prophet, e.g. Moses’s snake eating the magician’s snake, Elijah’s calling fire down from heaven to burn up Baal’s sacrifices. On the other hand, if there’s no miraculous counter, then we can infer that the message is truly from God.
Let’s formulate a complete argument for Jesus’s miracles contra the miracles of the Antichrist this way.
(1) Miracles are a work proper to God, that is, a unique divine witness to a prophetic message.
(2) Jesus claims that God has divinely revealed that all miracles which contradicts His message are all false, e.g. miracles by the devil and the Antichrist.
(3) If Jesus is lying through his teeth and God has other messages and revelations which contradicts Jesus’s message, then God cannot allow Jesus’s message to be miraculously confirmed because that would effectively be His own confirmation that these other messages are false.
(4) Thus, if Jesus is lying through his teeth, and God wants to prevent Jesus’s message from being confirmed, he has to either (a) prevent Jesus from performing any miracles to confirm the message or (b) perform a counter miracle to disprove Jesus’s message.
(5) Jesus, “by the finger of God”, performs miracles to confirm his message.
(6) Thus (4a) avenue for preventing the confirmation of Jesus’s message is negated.
(7) If Jesus is lying, God must act according to (4b) because to remain silent while his own witness is being invoked in deceit would fall foul of the law of adverse inferences, which would make God guilty of deceit.
( 8 ) However God does remain silent after Jesus’s miracles were confirmed.
The supposition of (3) is false, Jesus is not lying through his teeth.
And Corollary from (2): All other miracles performed in aid of messages “anti” to the Christ are false.
I think this is a tighter argument and more rigorous version of Scotus’s argument, but we still have to acknowledge the original genius of Scotus for the analogy. This is why I maintain firmly that Scotus is thousand times the better scholar and apologist for the Christian faith over Aquinas.