It is barely forty years since that beloved and fearless Christian scholar, Dean Stanley, spoke thus of the miracles recorded of the prophet Elisha: |His works stand alone in the Bible in their likeness to the acts of mediaeval saints. There alone in the Sacred History the gulf between Biblical and Ecclesiastical miracles almost disappears.| It required some courage to say as much as this then, while the storm of persecution was raging against Bishop Colenso for his critical work on the Pentateuch. The evangelical clergymen in England and the United States then prepared to confess as much as this, with all that it obviously implies, could have been seated in a small room. But time has moved on, and the Church, at least the scholars of the Church, have moved with it. No scholar of more than narrowly local repute now hesitates to acknowledge the presence of a legendary element both in the Old Testament and in the New. While the extent of it is still undetermined, many specimens of it are recognized. It is agreed that the early narratives in Genesis are of this character, and that it is marked in such stories as those of Samson, Elijah, and Elisha. Even the conservative revisers of the Authorized Version have eliminated from the Fourth Gospel the story of the angel at the pool of Bethesda, and in their marginal notes on the Third Gospel have admitted a doubt concerning the historicity of the angel and the bloody sweat in Gethsemane.
Furthermore, some events, recognized as historical, have been divested of the miraculous character once attributed to them, -- the crossing of the Red Sea, for instance, by the Hebrew host. A landslip in the thirteenth century A.D. has been noted as giving historical character to the story of the Hebrew host under Joshua's command crossing the Jordan |on dry ground,| but in a perfectly natural way. Other classes of phenomena once regarded as miraculous have been transferred to the domain of natural processes by the investigations and discoveries that have been made in the field of psychical research. The forewarning which God is said to have given the prophet Ahijah of the visit that the queen was about to pay him in disguise is now recognized as one of many cases of the mysterious natural function that we label as |telepathy.| The transformations of unruly, vicious, and mentally disordered characters by hypnotic influence that have been effected at the Salpetriere in Paris, and elsewhere, by physicians expert in psychical therapeutics are closely analogous to the cures wrought by Jesus on some victims of |demoniac possession.| The cases of apparition, also, which have been investigated and verified by the Society for Psychical Research have laid a solid basis of fact for the Biblical stories of angels, as at least, a class of phenomena to be regarded as by no means altogether legendary, but having their place among natural though mysterious occurrences.
But this progressive paring down of the miraculous element in the Bible has caused outcries of unfeigned alarm. Christian scholars who have taken part in it are reproached as deserters to the camp of unbelief. They are accused of banishing God from his world, and of reducing the course of events to an order of agencies quite undivine. |Miracle,| writes one of these brethren, |is the personal intervention of God into the chain of cause and effect.| But what does this mean, except that, when no miracles occur, God is not personally, i.e. actively, in the chain of natural causes and effects? As Professor Drummond says, |If God appears periodically, he disappears periodically.| It is precisely this view of the subject that really banishes God from his world. Those who thus define miracle regard miracles as having ceased at the end of the Apostolic age in the first century. Except, therefore, for the narrow range of human history that the Bible covers in time and place, God has not been personally in the chain of natural causes and effects. Thus close to an atheistic conception of nature does zeal for traditional orthodoxy unwittingly but really come.
The first pages of the Bible correct this error. |While the earth remaineth,| so God is represented as assuring Noah, |seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease.| The presence of God in his world was thus to be evinced by his regular sustentation of its natural order, rather than by irregular occurrences, such as the deluge, in seeming contravention of it. To seek the evidence of divine activity in human affairs and to ground one's faith in a controlling Providence in sporadic and cometary phenomena, rather than in the constant and cumulative signs of it to be seen in the majestic order of the starry skies, in the reign of intelligence throughout the cosmos, in the moral evolution of ancient savagery into modern philanthropy, in the historic manifestation throughout the centuries of a Power not our own that works for the increase of righteousness, is a mode of thought which in our time is being steadily and surely outgrown. It is one of those |idols of the tribe| whose power alike over civilized and uncivilized men is broken less by argument than by the ascent of man to wider horizons of knowledge.
It is for the gain of religion that it should be broken, -- of the spiritual religion whose God is not a tradition, a reminiscence, but a living presence, inhabiting alike the clod and the star, the flower in the crannied wall and the life of man. So thinking of God the religious man may rightly say, |If it is more difficult to believe in miracles, it is less important. If the extraordinary manifestations of God recounted in ancient history appear less credible, the ordinary manifestations of God in current life appear more real. He is seen in American history not less than in Hebrew history; in the life of to-day not less than in the life of long ago.|
Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church, Vol. II, p.362, American edition.
1 Kings xiv.1-7.
It is not intended to intimate that there is no such darker reality as a |possession| that is |demoniac| indeed. It cannot be reasonably pronounced superstitious to judge that there is some probability for that view. At any rate, it is certain that the problem is not to be settled by dogmatic pronouncement. It is certain, also, that the burden of proof rests on those who contend that there can be no such thing. On the other hand, it may be conceded that the cases recorded in the New Testament do not seem to be of an essentially devilish kind. On the general subject of |possession| see F. W. H. Myers's work on Human Personality and Survival after Death, Vol. I. (Longmans, Green & Co., New York and London.) Professor William James half humorously remarks: |The time-honored phenomenon of diabolical possession is on the point of being admitted by the scientist as a fact, now that he has the name of hysterodemonopathy by which to apperceive it.| Varieties of Religious Experience, p.501, note.
See Dictionary of Psychology, art. |Psychical Research.|
Dr. Peloubet, Teachers' Commentary on the Acts, 1902.
Dr. Lyman Abbott in The Outlook, February 14, 1903.