Last year, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. While Scotland is now considered one of the more secular places on earth, it has a rich history of Christianity dating back to perhaps the early third century. So, naturally, I made sure to enroll in Edinburgh University’s course on the History of Christianity as a World Religion. Readings for this course varied in time period, language, cultural context, and subject matter. There was, however, one thing that nearly all readings had in common: accounts of reported miracles.
One of these readings concerned Adonman’s Life of Columba, the famed Irish missionary to Britain in the late sixth century.¹ Writing nearly a hundred years after Columba’s death, Adonman writes his account based on the testimony “handed on by the report of older and trustworthy men who were in a position to know.”¹ It is not a “proper” biography in the modern sense of the word; we are not told where Columba was born, who his parents were, or how many siblings he had. As satisfying as such details would be for the modern reader, Adonman focuses almost exclusively on Columba’s alleged miracles: sick restored to health, dead returned to life, storms calmed at his command, gates opened before him on their own accord. According to Adonman, Columba even accurately predicted the hour, outcome, and number slain in the Battle of Miathi.
I must admit I found it surprising to read a collection of miracle stories for a history class. However, as I continued to think about it, I realized I was unjustified in dismissing these stories at a whim. It occurred to me that there is no historical reason to automatically reject miracles. History has nothing to say about whether or not the natural order can be overridden by some higher power. That is not a question history can answer. Rather, the job of a historian is to examine the available evidence from the past and then piece it together into a meaningful narrative. To conclude miracles are impossible is an a priori presupposition—based on the metaphysical commitment to naturalism—that a historian brings to his work rather than derives from his work.
Alleged miracles have sparked much debate over the years. David Hume has been championed by many scholars generally critical of miracle stories. Hume suggests that one can never positively identify a miracle. His reasoning is as follows: miracles are violations of the laws of nature. Therefore, by definition miracles occur less often—and as such are less probable—than natural events. The wise man will always favor the more probable explanation over the less probable explanation. In the case of miracles, human experience is heavily in favor of natural laws over miracles. Everyone agrees that people do not normally rise from the dead, for example. As such, no matter how good the evidence may be in any particular case in favor of a “resurrection,” that evidence is canceled out by the “uniform experience of human beings” that people who have died stay dead.
However, as William Lane Craig, Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, points out, Hume’s views fall prey to at best erroneous, and at worst fallacious, reasoning. For if by “uniform” Hume means that no miracles have ever occurred, he is begging the question. The only reason to believe that premise is to already assume that all reported miracles are false. If, on the other hand, “uniform” simply means “general” or “usual,” then there is no discrepancy between saying that 1) miracles generally do not occur and 2) miracles did occur in well-documented particular cases. Hume appears to be making a categorical error, confusing the processes of science and history. Let’s grant that miracles violate the laws of nature; this only means that science can tell us that miracles do not naturally happen. But that is not to say that miracles have never happened; this latter question is for history to answer on an individual basis after the careful analysis of all available evidence. “General” human experience establishes a norm, a usual pattern of events. But a norm cannot cancel out or nullify good evidence in any particular case.2
There is a danger in bringing an a priori commitment to the table when evaluating historical data. For Hume, as a naturalist, he must assume—before the examination of any evidence, no matter how convincing or well-documented the eyewitness testimony—that all alleged miracles are false. This would be like going into a courtroom and, before hearing the evidence of the prosecution, saying that the defendant did not murder his wife because the probability that husbands of such and such socioeconomic status kill their wives is very low. But maybe in this particular case, there is good evidence that increases the probability that the husband murdered his wife: namely, fingerprint and DNA evidence, a motive, lack of an alibi, eyewitness testimony that confirms the husband was at home at the time of the murder, etc. So in this case, an a priori commitment actually hampers one’s ability to follow the evidence wherever the evidence leads.
It is important to note that if one believes in some sort of deity or supernatural power, there is no reason to suppose this higher being could not step in and override the natural order from time to time should he desire to do so. In other words, the possibility of miracles is a logical extension of theism. This is not to say that the theist must embrace every purported miracle at face value. Rather, miraculous claims must be evaluated on an individual basis to determine if the evidence makes plausible a natural cause or a supernatural one. The theist leaves open the possibility for divine intervention; the naturalist must close this door before any evidence is brought forward.
Around this time of year, Christians celebrate a miracle: the virgin conception of Jesus, God Incarnate. Most people are at least familiar with the story, though arguably fewer realize that the story is set in a historical time period that is subject to investigation and inquiry. One need not blindly believe all the claims made by the Gospel writers concerning Jesus. A historian must approach the Gospels like he would any other historical document—namely, as a collection of first-century documents to be scrutinized for accuracy and compared to other contemporary sources. It is beyond the scope of this essay to detail how well the Gospels do (in terms of historical reliability) when evaluated in this fashion. My main point is this: we do ourselves a disservice by arbitrarily passing over these ancient texts because the writers challenge our preconceived notion of what is real and what is not. Certainly, after careful evaluation of the Gospels themselves, we are free to remain unconvinced. But until we put in the intellectual work, we cannot claim these writers are wrong on miracles for historical reasons. Our issue with miracles is not historical in nature, but metaphysical.
- Adomnan. The Life of Saint Columba. Routledge, London, 1905. Accessed on Internet Archive on 22 October 2020. archive.org/details/lifeofsaintcolum00adam/page/6/mode/2up
- Craig, William Lane. “The Problem of Miracles: A Historical and Philosophical Perspective.” Reasonable Faith, Reasonable Faith, www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/historical-jesus/the-problem-of-miracles-a-historical-and-philosophical-perspective/. Accessed 21 Oct 2020.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
**Another version of this story was originally published in Free Thinking Ministries.