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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : VII SYNOPSIS.--Account to be made of the law of atrophy through disuse.--The virgin birth and the corporeal resurrection of Jesus

Miracles And Supernatural Religion by James Morris Whiton

VII SYNOPSIS.--Account to be made of the law of atrophy through disuse.--The virgin birth and the corporeal resurrection of Jesus

VII SYNOPSIS. -- Account to be made of the law of atrophy through disuse. -- The virgin birth and the corporeal resurrection of Jesus, the two miracles now insisted on as the irreducible minimum, affected by this law. -- The vital truths of the incarnation and immortality independent of these miracles. -- These truths now placed on higher ground in a truer conception of the supernatural. -- The true supernatural is the spiritual, not the miraculous. -- Scepticism bred from the contrary view. -- The miracle narratives, while less evidential for religion, not unimportant for history. -- Psychical research a needful auxiliary for the scientific critic of these. To the true conception of the supernatural we shall presently come. But we cannot proceed without briefly reminding ourselves of the certain consequences of this now far advanced dropping of miracles by modern apologetics from their ancient use as evidences of a supernatural Revelation. We are not ignorant of the law, which holds throughout the material, the mental, and the moral realms, that disuse tends to atrophy and extinction. Disused organs cease to exist, as in the eyeless cave-fish. For centuries the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus was serviceable for confirmation of his claim to be the Son of God. In the address of the angel of the annunciation to Mary that claim is expressly rested on the miraculous conception of |the holy thing.| But as ethical enlightenment grows, the conviction grows that, whether the physiological ground of that claim be tenable or not, the ethical ground of it is essentially higher. Father and son even in human relationships are terms of more than physiological import. It is matter of frequent experience that, where the ethical character of such relationship is lacking, the physiological counts for nothing. Moreover, the divine sonship of Jesus in a purely ethical view rests on ground not only higher but incontestable. And so in our time theologians prefer to rest it on foundations that cannot be shaken, on his moral oneness with God, the divineness of his spirit, the ideal perfectness of his life. The strength of this position being realized, the world begins to hear from Christian thinkers the innovating affirmation that belief of the miraculous birth can no longer be deemed essential to Christianity; else it would not have been left unmentioned in two of the four Gospels, and in every extant Apostolic letter. And now we hear theologians saying: |I accept it, but I place it no more among the evidences of Christianity. I defend it, but cannot employ it in the defence of supernatural Revelation.| Such a stage of thought is only transitional. An antiquated argument does not long survive in the world of thought. Military weapons that have become unserviceable soon find their way either to the museum or the foundry. It is shortsighted not to foresee the inevitable effect on our theological material of the law of atrophy through disuse. The case of the miracle is the case of a pillar originally put in for the support of an ancient roof. When the roof has a modern truss put beneath it springing from wall to wall, the pillar becomes an obstacle, and is removed.

But as in such a case the roof, otherwise supported, does not fall in when the pillar is removed, so neither is the central Christian truth of the incarnation imperilled by any weakening or vanishing of belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth. In a discussion of the subject in Convocation at York, England, while these pages were being written, the Dean of Ripon (Dr. Boyd Carpenter) urged that it must be borne in mind that the incarnation and the virgin birth were two different things, and that some who found difficulty in the latter fully accepted the former. In a recent sermon Dr. Briggs insists likewise upon this: |The virgin birth is only one of many statements of the mode of incarnation.... The doctrine of the incarnation does not depend upon the virgin birth.... It is only a minor matter connected with the incarnation, and should have a subordinate place in the doctrine.... At the same time the virgin birth is a New Testament doctrine, and we must give it its proper place and importance.... The favorite idea of the incarnation among the people has ever been the simpler one of the virgin birth, as in the Ave Maria. The theologians have ever preferred the more profound doctrine of the Hymn of the Logos [John i.1-18].| Nay, it may even be found that the weakening of belief in the incarnation as an isolated and miraculous event may tend to promote a profounder conception of it, that brings the divine and the human into touch and union at all points instead of in one point.

A similar change of thought, less remarked than its significance deserves, is concerned with that other great miracle, the corporeal resurrection of Jesus, which such writers as Dr. Nicoll couple with that of his virgin birth as the irreducible minimum of miracle, belief in which is essential to Christian discipleship. For many centuries the resurrection story in the Gospels has served as the conclusive proof both of the divine sonship of Jesus, and of our own resurrection to immortality. In the churches it is still popularly regarded as the supreme, sufficient, and indispensable fact required for the basis of faith. But in many a Christian mind the thought has dawned, that a single fact cannot give adequate ground for the general inference of a universal principle; that a remote historical fact, however strongly attested, can evince only what has taken place in a given case, not what will or must occur in other cases; while it is also inevitably more or less pursued by critical doubt of the attestations supporting it.

This rising tide of reflection has compelled resort to higher ground, to the inward evidences in the nature of mind that are more secure from the doubt to which all that is merely external and historical is exposed. A clear distinction has been discerned between the real resurrection of Jesus -- his rising from the mortal state into the immortal, and his phenomenal resurrection -- the manifestations of his change that are related as having been objectively witnessed. What took place in the invisible world -- his real resurrection -- is now more emphasized by Christian thinkers than the phenomenal resurrection in the visible world. So conservatively orthodox a writer as Dr. G. D. Boardman goes so far as to say: |After all, the real question in the matter of his resurrection is not, 'Did Christ's body rise?' That is but a subordinate, incidental issue.| The real question, as Dr. Boardman admits, is, |Whether Jesus Christ himself is risen, and is alive to-day.| The main stress of Christian thought to-day is not laid, as formerly, on the phenomena recorded in the story of the resurrection, but on the psychological, moral, and rational evidences of a resurrection to immortality that until recent times were comparatively disregarded. Meanwhile the vindication of the reality of the phenomena related of the risen Jesus, including his bodily ascension, though not a matter of indifference to many of those who have found the higher grounds of faith, has become to them of subordinate importance.

It is well for Christian faith that its supersensuous and impregnable grounds have been occupied. It is certain that ancient records of external phenomena cannot in future constitute, as heretofore, the stronghold of faith. But it is by no means yet certain that they have lost serviceableness as, at least, outworks of the stronghold. While the doctrine of the virgin birth seems to be threatened by atrophy, the doctrine of the bodily resurrection, though retired from primary to secondary rank, seems to be waiting rather for clarification by further knowledge.

Something of an objective nature certainly lies at its basis; something of an external sort, not the product of mere imagination, took place. To the fact thus indefinitely stated, that hallowing of Sunday as a day of sacred and joyful observance which is coeval with the earliest traditions, and antedates all records, is an attestation as significant as any monumental marble. No hallucination theory, no gradual rise and growth of hope in the minds of a reflective few, can account for that solid primeval monument. But what occurred, the reality in distinctness from any legendary accretions, we shall be better able to conclude, when the truth shall have been threshed out concerning the reality, at present strongly attested, and as strongly controverted, of certain extraordinary but occult psychical powers.

A point of high significance for those who would cultivate a religious faith not liable to be affected by changes of intellectual outlook or insight is, that this lower valuation of miracle observable among Christian thinkers has not been reached through breaches made by sceptical doubts of the reality of a supernatural Revelation. They have, of course, felt the reasonableness of the difficulties with which traditional opinions have been encumbered by the advance of knowledge. But so far from giving way thereupon to doubts of the reality of divine Revelation, they have sought and found less assailable defences for their faith in it than those that sufficed their fathers. And their satisfaction therewith stands in no sympathy with those who hold it a mark of enlightenment to assume with Matthew Arnold, that |miracles do not happen.| It has resulted rather from reaching the higher grounds of religious thought, on which supernatural Revelation is recognized in its essential character as distinctively moral and spiritual.

The true supernatural is the spiritual, not the miraculous, a higher order of Nature, not a contradiction of Nature. The Revelation of Jesus was altogether spiritual. It consisted in the ideas of God which he communicated by his ministry and teaching, by his character and life. But this, the real supernatural, was not obvious as such to his contemporaries. They looked for it in the lower region of physical effects. And here the Church also in its embryonic spiritual life, in its proneness to externalize religion in forms of rite, and creed, and organization, has thought to find it. Jesus' reproof, |Except ye see signs and wonders ye will not believe,| is still pertinent to those who will not have it that the supernatural Revelation -- spiritual though it be -- can be recognized or believed in apart from an acknowledgment of attendant miracles, wrought in physical nature by an intervention of God. Such a contention, however, is as futile and desperate as was John Wesley's declaration, |The giving up of witchcraft is in effect the giving up of the Bible.| Such mischievous fallacies succeed only in blinding many a mind to the real issue which the moral and spiritual Revelation of Jesus makes with men of the twentieth century. It is these fallacies, and not their critics, that create the most of scepticism.

But while the question whether miracles are credible has ceased to be of vital importance, it has by no means lost all importance. On the contrary, so long as the path of progress is guided by the lamp of experience, so long will it be of consequence that the historical record of experience be found trustworthy. It may suit the overweening pride which defies both the past and the present to say with Bonaparte, that history is only a fable that men have agreed to believe. But it is a human interest, and a satisfaction of normal minds to establish, so far as reason permits, the credibility of every record ostensibly historic. To discover that ancient experiences, once supposed to be miraculous raisings from real death, may reasonably be classed with well attested experiences of to-day, better understood as resuscitations from a deathlike trance, should be welcomed by unprejudiced historical critics, as redeeming portions of the ancient record from mistaken disparagement as legendary. That further study may accredit as facts, or at least as founded on facts, some other marvels in that record cannot, except by arrant dogmatism, be pronounced improbable. Nevertheless, it cannot be expected that the legendary element, which both the Old and the New Testament in greater and less degree exhibit, can ever be eliminated. Such stories as that of the origin of languages at Babel, and that of the resurrection of ancient saints at Jesus' resurrection are indubitable cases of it. But the legendary element, though permanent, is at present undefined. To define it is the problem of the critical student, a problem most difficult to him whose judgment is least subjective; and he will welcome every contribution that advancing knowledge can supply.

Regarding miracle as the natural product of exceptionally endowed life, there is no source from which more light can be shed on its Biblical record than in those studies of the exceptional phenomena and occult powers of life which are prosecuted by the Society for Psychical Research, whose results are recorded in its published Proceedings. For those familiar with this record the legendary element in the Bible tends to shrink into smaller compass than many critics assign it. In the interest both of the Bible and of science it is regrettable that the results of these researches, though conducted by men of high eminence in the scientific world, still encounter the same hostile scepticism even from some Christian believers that Hume directed against the Biblical miracles. Mr. Gladstone has put himself on record against this philistinism, saying that |psychical research is by far the most important work that is being done in the world.| Were one disposed to prophesy, very reasonable grounds could be produced for the prediction that, great as was the advance of the nineteenth century in physical knowledge, the twentieth century will witness an advance in psychical knowledge equally great. In this advance one may not unreasonably anticipate that some, at least, of the Biblical miracles may be relieved from the scepticism that now widely discredits them.


Luke i.35.

To what extent the law of atrophy has begun to work upon the doctrine of the virgin birth appears in the recent utterance of so eminent an evangelical scholar as Dr. R. F. Horton, of London. The following report of his remarks in a Christmas sermon in 1901 is taken from the Christian World, London. |We could not imagine Paul, Peter, and John all ignoring something essential to the Gospel they preached. Strictly speaking, this narrative in Matthew and Luke was one of the latest touches in the Gospel, belonging to a period forty or fifty years after the Lord had passed away, when men had begun to realize what he was -- the Son of God -- and tried to express their conviction in this form or that.| The implication here is unmistakable, that, in Dr. Horton's view, subjective considerations in the minds of pious believers, rather than objective fact, form the basis of the story.

See the Sermon on |Born of a Virgin,| in the volume on The Incarnation of Our Lord.

|Christian thought has not erred by asserting too much concerning the incarnation of God, but, on the contrary, too little.... If ever overblown by blasts of denial, it is for wanting breadth of base.... Men have disbelieved the incarnation, because told that all there was of it was in Christ; and they reject what is presented as exceptional to the general way of God. They must be told to believe more; that the age-long way of God is in a perpetually increasing incarnation of life, whose climax and crown is the divine fulness of life in Christ.| -- From a discourse by the present writer on |Life and its Incarnations,| in the volume, New Points to Old Texts. (James Clarke & Co., London. Thomas Whittaker, New York, 1889.)

See page 97 and Note.

Romans i.4.

1 Corinthians xv.16-23.

Our Risen King's Forty Days, 1902.

In strong contrast with this are the reactionary protests of Dr. W. R. Nicoll: |To talk of the resurrection of the spirit is preposterous. The spirit does not die, and therefore cannot rise.... The one resurrection of which the New Testament knows, the one resurrection which allows to language any meaning, is the resurrection of the body, the resurrection which leaves the grave empty| (op. cit. p.134).

It should be noted here that Jesus' argument with the Sadducees on the resurrection (Luke xx.37, 38) logically proceeds on the assumption that living after death and rising after death are convertible terms. Also, that the contrast involved in the idea of the resurrection (the anastasis, or rising up) is a contrast not between the grave and the sky, but between the lower life of mortals and the higher life immortal.

For an extended exhibition of this line of evidence see |The Assurance of Immortality,| and |The Present Pledge of Life to Come| (in two volumes of discourses by the present writer), London, James Clarke & Co. New York, Thomas Whittaker, 1888 and 1889.

Could it have been only an apparition? The |census of hallucinations| conducted some ten years since by the Society for Psychical Research evinced the reality of veridical apparitions of deceased persons at or near the time of their death, showing the number of verified cases to be so large as to exclude the supposition of chance hallucination (see Proceedings, August, 1894). Or could it have been a material body suddenly becoming visible in a closed room, as narrated by Luke and John? First-class evidence, if there can be any such for such occurrences, has been exhibited for such phenomena as the passage of solid substances through intervening doors and walls -- easy enough, say mathematicians, for a being familiar with the |fourth dimension| -- and of the levitation of heavy bodies without physical support. (See Proceedings, January, 1894, and March, 1895.) As to such things scepticism is doubtless in order, but dogmatic contradiction is not. Sub judice lis est.

Professor Borden P. Bowne has thus exhibited this great mistake and its grievous consequence: --

|In popular thought, religious and irreligious alike, the natural is supposed to be something that runs itself without any internal guidance or external interference. The supernatural, on the other hand, if there be any such thing, is not supposed to manifest itself through the natural, but by means of portents, prodigies, interpositions, departures from, or infractions of, natural law in general. The realm of law belongs to the natural, and the natural runs itself. Hence, if we are to find anything supernatural, we must look for it in the abnormal, the chaotic, the lawless, or that which defies all reduction to order that may be depended on. This notion underlies the traditional debate between naturalism and supernaturalism.... This unhappy misconception of the relation of the natural to the supernatural has practically led the great body of uncritical thinkers into the grotesque inversion of all reason -- the more law and order, the less God.| -- Zion's Herald, August 22, 1900.

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