But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Luke 11:20

The Difficulty on Rival Miracles throughout History

It seems almost like a self-evident truth that miracles of course authenticate theological truth claims. The link is pretty obvious throughout the Bible, Jesus’s message concerning the kingdom of God is confirmed by his exorcism, if Christ is not risen our faith is in vain, etc.

However throughout the history the link between miracles and divine revelation has not always been that straightforward. We can distinguish between the “soft” difficulty, as to whether we can believe in reports of miraculous occurrence, and the “hard” difficulty, where we need to determine what the miracles mean when we are confronted with miracles by rival theological traditions with conflicting theological truth claims. The “soft” problem has never posed a significant difficulty, for a somewhat tongue in cheek review of the history of the argument you can see this post.

The hard difficulty had always existed throughout history, even in the Old Testament, but it would receive the most explicit expression during the Enlightenment. Formally the Enlightenment question was: do miracles authenticate theological truth claims, or are we to judge the “validity” of a miracles based on anterior theological commitments? After all, the Pharisees could say that Jesus performed miracles by Beelzebub, and Jesus himself warned that the Antichrist can perform miracles to deceive, if possible, even the very elect. The link between miracles and divine revelation as such is not all that clear.

The issue was most sharply focused in a now largely forgotten 18th century episode, the Convulsionaries of St. Médard, involving alleged miracles around the tomb of a Jansenist deacon. A heterodox Roman Catholic sect, the Jansenists claimed that the occurrence of miracles around the grave of a Jansenist deacon “authenticated” their theological position against the Roman Catholics. As the reports grew in number and intensity, and as the number of pilgrims and the curious to the tomb swelled, the Jesuits in their battle against them became increasingly desperate and started to rely on skeptical arguments against miracles, in general, advanced by the very Enlightenment against Christian truth claims itself. The episode was finally brought to a close by the King of France locking down and out the tomb and stemming the tide of pilgrims and curious visitors. (For a much more detailed discussion of the historical context of this episode, I recommend this blog post.)

A satirical poster however appeared outside the tomb which highlighted the potentially explosive implications of the controversy: “By order of the king, God is forbidden from performing miracles here.” If the divine was subject to human will, what else could be? The involvement of skeptical celebrities like Voltaire himself to investigate the matter brought it to attention of Enlightenment Europe where the debate over the veracity of miracles raged. Other skeptics like David Hume used precisely this episode as a lightning rod for their arguments against miracles in general. Indeed, as Hume would ask rhetorically, if the numerous testimonies to the St. Médard miracles were not sufficient testimony for their theological truth claims, how could the testimonies of the New Testament avail to evidence the resurrection of Christ and Christian theological truth claims? Subsequent major theologians and theological textbooks would comment on this episode in their discussion of miraculous authentication, B.B. Warfield was perhaps the last major theologian to systematically engage the issue in his Counterfeit miracles before interest in the topic strangely disappeared from all theologising.

While St. Médard focused the problem in a concrete raw form, the problem which it posed was not unknown to Enlightenment thinkers prior to the episode. In particular, the British Enlightenment Christians had spent the better part of the Early Modern period discussing the problem of rival miracles. A famous example commonly used was the miracles of the pagan Roman Emperor Vespasian, who lived around the time of Christ and as such, was the perfect example for teasing out the principles behind evaluation of miracles. We can go even further back to John Duns Scotus whose Ordinatio probably provided the first attempt at a systematic treatment of the meaning of miracles and the problem of rival miracles. Going even further back, St Augustine himself was confronted by this problem when he declared that the miracles of the Donatist meant nothing, it is not miracles which authenticate their theology, but it is right theology which shall judge their miracles. As to whether he was conscious of the problems this would pose for the miracles of the apostles themselves, or tried to work his way out of his circularity, I am uncertain.

Both Duns Scotus and the British Enlightenment Christians in fact did sketch out a set of principles for trying to evaluate miracles like that of Vespasian, the Antichrist, or the Jansenist which did not involve either begging the question, e.g. their miracles are false because our theology was right, or simply blaming it on the devil, and even if they did want to blame it on the devil, they were careful to articulate their objections in a non-circular manner. It is the purpose of this post to return to that project once more and to advance a little of their framework, hopefully towards a more comprehensive framework for understanding miracles in general.

The Background Assumptions for Evaluating Miracles

If the miracles witnessed by the Bible were not to be justified in a circular way, then logically it stands to reason that the criteria for their evaluation has to at least begin from principles anterior to the Scriptures. The Scriptures, as we will see, can no doubt develop the principles and criteria whereby we evaluate miracles. However, to avoid circularity we need to begin outside the Bible.

Natural Theology and Natural Revelation of God’s Moral Order

So what are those principles? The British Enlightenment Christians argued that naturally we start from the premises of natural theology and the moral government of God. Via our reason, we determine that God made this world and that he has certain characteristics which makes him worthy of our worship, e.g. he seeks our good, etc. As such, we begin not with blank slate nor just presupposing the Bible, but from the precepts of natural theology and “natural law” or the moral precepts already written in the hearts of men. Thus we can determine if a miracle is from God if the intrinsic qualities of those miracles are compatible with a God which seeks our good. A miracle, for example, whereby a person could miraculously get rid of the husband she doesn’t like, would automatically be discounted as a false miracle or one from the devil, and certainly not as 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.

Since we are discussing miracles by God to testify to a direct message from God, obviously that miracle should bear the hallmarks of God himself.

Contextualising the Purpose and Message of Miracles

This principle is vital when it comes to evaluating rival or pagan miracles, the significance of those miracles need to, obviously, be interpreted within their own immediate context first. From this principle we can derive the following conclusion: not all miracles are “authenticating” miracles. Just because a figure from a rival religious tradition performs a miracle it doesn’t follow the purpose of their miracle is to authenticate their theology. Balaam was not a Jew and yet God could still use him to prophesy for God’s own purposes. Some British Enlightenment thinkers argued that if God wants to heal a pagan or heathen, and wants to keep the spark of divinity alive in a society, why should he not perform a miracle via less than orthodox or even pagan agents? With regards the famous Emperor Vespasian example, if God providentially wanted a stable Roman Empire, or to confirm Vespasian in his rule, why should not God perform miracles by Vespasian to effect that end?

Thus, not all miracles authenticate or are for the purpose of testifying to the theological assumptions or background of the person performing the miracle. They could have immediate purposes or ends orthogonally connected to their background.

To be sure we do have miracles which are specifically “symbolic” of theological contests, e.g. the miracles of Moses are specifically aimed against the Egyptian gods. That the Egyptian magicians themselves could perform miracles by turning their staff into snakes was falsified, not by denying that they did perform the miracle, but by Moses’s snake eating the magicians’ snake. Thus, when we have a thaumaturgic contest which are specifically to vindicate the true theology in a contest of rival religious traditions, then the miracle which is truly from God should “defeat” the other side.

As such, sometimes miracles can be performed to specifically prove and authenticate the authority of the prophet or miracle worker, or to authenticate his theological message or truth claim. From this point we are led to the next point:

The Chronological Priority of Miracles

If God can authenticate a specific theological message by miracles, then we can assume that no subsequent miracle can contradict the message previous authenticated by God himself. Thus, there is a prejudice for chronological priority in the authentication function of miracles, theological messages specifically authenticated by miracles performed earlier in time has priority over theological messages authenticated by miracles performed later in time (I again want to remind you of the distinction between miracles being merely performed by rival religious figures, and miracles performed by them to authenticate their theological truth claims against rival claims. Thus pagan miracles which precede that of the Bible are no problem on this principle).

The chronological priority of miracles would entail two kinds of constrains I will call “soft” and “hard”. It will impose soft constrains in the sense that subsequent miracles should not authenticate messages incompatible to the message by prior miracles even if they can reveal novel content. “Hard” constrains is when the prior miracle itself authenticates a theological message specifically to negate and reject miracles performed to authenticate a whole class of messages. We can see an example in Deuteronomy 13:1-5:

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us walk after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for Yahweh your God is testing you to find out if you love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after Yahweh your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death because he has counseled rebellion against Yahweh your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to drive you from the way in which Yahweh your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you.

Thus, God himself specifically instructs Israel to ignore a genuine miracle or prophecy, which has come true, if it testifies to specific false theological contents, e.g. to lead Israel away from Yahweh and unto other gods. We can accept the miracles of Moses while rejecting the subsequent miracles of such a false prophet without inconsistency because of the precept of the chronological priority of miracles, the prior message has been authenticated before the subsequent message and limits the scope of acceptable miracles thereon.

[Addendum: Interestingly enough, Thomas Hobbes himself articulated a principle very much like this in his discussion on miracles in his Leviathan:

If one Prophet deceive another, what certainty is there of knowing the will of God, by other way than that of Reason? To which I answer out of the Holy Scripture, that there be two marks, by which together, not asunder, a true Prophet is to be known. One is the doing of miracles; the other is the not teaching any other Religion than that which is already established.

(Underline mine) He then proceeds to quote the same Deuteronomy passage to discuss this point. Thus, by deferring to a religion already established, that is very similar to principle of chronological priority I’ve articulated here.]

The chronological priority of miracles, the theological messages authenticated earlier in time can bind subsequent miracles and messages, has an especial application in the question of the miracles of the Antichrist which Christ warns us against. Because Duns Scotus gave such a brilliant and subtle explanation of that phenomenon, I will dedicate an entire separate post here discussing Scotus’s own exposition on that point which enfleshes this principle in more detail.

I want to make a very brief note that this principle is a theological precept, not an epistemic one. Chronological priority here is in terms theological validity, not in terms of how we can epistemically justify whether an authentic miracle occurred in the historical-evidential sense. Thus, the principle of chronological priority does not negate the apologetic move of being able to epistemically rely on the New Testament accounts as reliable witnesses and testimonies to the miracles establishing the divinity of Christ, and then make the theological argument that the divine Christ’s affirmation of the Old Testament can establish the divine inspiration of the Old Testament. Epistemically from a historical point of view, even if we do not have as much historical evidence for the reliability of the Old Testament as witnesses to the primary events as we do for the New Testament, nevertheless they can still be invoked as circumstantial evidence to reinforce the reliability of the New Testament by simply noting that there is a strange and remarkable coincidence between the prophesies of the Old Testament, which is clearly written before the events of Christ’s life even if we are unsure of whether it goes “all the way” back, and its subsequent fulfilment. It can even be simply used as evidence of the state of Jewish belief back then while bracketing questions of whether it was a reliable witness to divine revelation. Thus, the distinction between theological premises and epistemic/historical premises need a bit of careful analysis and work.

As a side historical note, it is interesting that during the Reformation when the Roman Catholics argued that the Protestants had no miracles while the Roman Catholic position was authenticated by numerous signs and wonders, John Calvin’s famous reply was that the doctrines of the Protestants were authenticated by the miracles of the apostles, this is the principle of the chronological priority at work. Lest it be said that this is merely a convenient apologetic move by the Protestants, the Roman Catholics were compelled to avail themselves of the same principle when they argued that the Jansenist miracles meant nothing because the miracles of the apostles had already established the Church as the “certifying” authority on all miracles, so subsequent miracles against them were by default negated.

Conclusion: Evaluating Rival Miracles

I think as we live through the decline of Christendom and find ourselves in a wider world of competing religions and theological truth claims, we need to nourish once more those apologetic muscles which we once wielded against other religions. This cannot be done clumsily or lazily, by blanket and question begging dismissals of all other rival miraculous reports as either done by the devil, or via overarching skeptical arguments against all miracles in general. I think the British Enlightenment project of formulating the principles for evaluating miracles, which have been since the time of the Old Testament should be revived and developed much more extensively to meet the challenge of our time, a challenge not new nor novel, but which has been since Moses himself warned his people against following the prophets of other gods.

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