The Evidences in proof of the Divine authority of the Sacred Scriptures may be divided into External, Internal, and Collateral. The External Evidence consists of miracles and prophecy; the Internal Evidence is drawn from the nature and moral tendency of the doctrines taught; and the Collateral Evidence arises from a variety of circumstances, which indirectly prove the Revelation to be divinely inspired.
The principal and most appropriate evidence of a Revelation from God must be external to the Revelation itself. If, therefore, any person should profess to have received a Revelation from God to teach to mankind, and that he was directed to command their obedience to it on pain of the Divine displeasure, he would be asked for some external authentication of his mission. He might believe that a Divine communication had been made to himself; but his belief would have no authority to command ours. Nor could we have any means, without external proof of knowing that he had received such communication. Internal evidence alone could not be a sufficient proof; for we could not tell whether his doctrines, however excellent, might not be the fruits of his own mental labor. To us, therefore, they could only have the authority of mere human opinions; and though their reasonableness and excellence might entitle him to attention and respect, without some external authentication he could not command.
Agreeable to this, the authors both of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures profess to have authenticated their mission by the two great external proofs, Miracles and Prophecy; and it remains to be considered whether a mission to teach the will of God to man is sufficiently authenticated when miracles are really performed, and prophecies unequivocally accomplished.
I. Miracles.—In looking at these, as an external and authenticating proof of Divine Revelation, we may consider,
1. Their Nature.—In a philosophic sense, a miracle is an event which is inconsistent with some known law of nature, or contrary to the settled constitution and course of things. Accordingly, miracles presuppose an established system of nature, within the limits of which they operate, and with the order of which they disagree.
In a theological sense, a miracle is an event contrary to the established constitution and course of things, effected by the interposition of God for the proof of some particular doctrine, or in attestation of the authority of some particular person.
The miracles recorded in the Holy Scriptures agree with the theological meaning of the term. They were wrought immediately by God himself, to attest the Divine mission of particular persons, and to authenticate their doctrines; or by some superior creatures, commissioned by him for the same purpose; or by men, in order to prove that they were invested with Divine authority.
In order to distinguish a real miracle, it is necessary that we should understand the common course of nature, for, without some knowledge of the operations of physical causes, we might deem an event miraculous merely because it is strange and inexplicable. Should an earthquake happen in a country where men had never heard of such a calamity, by the ignorant it might be considered miraculous; whereas, it is a regular effect of the established laws of nature.
But as we have at best only a partial knowledge of these laws, it seems necessary that such miracles as are intended to authenticate a Divine Revelation should be effected upon objects whose properties are well understood, and that they should be evidently contrary to some known laws by which such objects have been uniformly governed; or, that their apparent cause should be known to have no adequate power or adaptation to produce them. When these circumstances concur in any event, there is sufficient ground to conclude that it is miraculous.
Assuming, then, for the present, that the works ascribed to Moses and to Christ were actually performed by them, they are of such a nature as to leave no reasonable doubt of their miraculous character. The rod cast from the hand of Moses became a serpent. Here the subject was well known; it was a rod; and it was obviously contrary to the established course of nature that it should undergo so signal a transformation.
The sea is parted at the stretching out of the rod of Moses, and the waters stand upon each side, leaving a passage for the host of Israel. But there is here no adaptation in the apparent cause to produce the effect, which was obviously in direct opposition to the known qualities of water.
It is in the nature of clouds to be carried about by the wind; but the cloud which attended the Israelites in the wilderness rested on their tabernacle, moved when they were commanded to march, and directed their course. It rested when they were to pitch their tents; and by night, when it is the nature of clouds to become dark, it shone with the brightness of fire. In all these cases, therefore, if the facts can be established, there can be no doubt as to their miraculous character.
"Were a physician instantly to give sight to a blind man, by anointing his eyes with a chemical preparation, to the nature and qualities of which we were absolute strangers, the cure would be to us wonderful; but we could not pronounce it miraculous, because it might be the physical effect of the unguent upon the eyes. But were he to give sight to his patient merely by commanding him to receive it, or by anointing his eyes with spittle, we should, with the utmost confidence, pronounce the cure to be a miracle, because we know that neither the human voice nor human spittle has any such power over the diseases of the eye."
"Persons apparently dead are often restored to their families and friends by being treated, during suspended animation, in the manner recommended by the Humane Society. To the vulgar, and even sometimes to men of science, these resuscitations appear very wonderful; but as they are known to be effected by physical agency, they cannot be miraculous. On the other hand, no one could doubt of his having witnessed a real miracle, who had seen a person that had been four days dead come alive out of the grave at the call of another."
2. Their Possibility.—Those who believe in a Supreme Creator, and in the dependence of all things upon his power and will, cannot deny the possibility of miracles; nor is there anything in them inconsistent with the wisdom and the immutability of God, or with the perfection of his works. They are departures from the ordinary course of God's operations; but not to remedy unforeseen evils, or to repair imperfections in the system of nature. The reasons for them are moral and not natural reasons; and they are wrought to accomplish moral ends. They remind us, when they occur, that the power of God is superior to nature, and that on him all nature depends.
3. The Circumstances under which Miracles are an authenticating Evidence.—Granting their possibility, the argument which is drawn from them is this: that as the established and known course of nature has been fixed by the Creator and Preserver of all things, it can never be counteracted but by himself, or by other beings at his command, and by his assistance. To deny this, is to deny the omnipotence and natural government of God.
But miracles, in order to be an authentication of a Divine mission, must be effected by the power of God for this very purpose. The following circumstances are sufficient to establish this fact: 1. When the miracles occur only in connection with an actual profession of certain persons that they have a mission from God, and while they are engaged in the proper functions of their office. In this there would be a strong presumption that the works were wrought by God in order to authenticate this pretension. 2. When they are performed by the persons themselves, at their own will, and for the express purpose of establishing their mission. If the works are real miracles, it is then clear that God is with them, and that his co-operation is an authenticating and visible seal upon their commission.
But though it should be allowed, that when real miracles occur under the circumstances which we have mentioned they are satisfactory evidences of a Divine mission, and that eye-witnesses of such miracles would be bound to admit the proof; it has been made a question, whether their testimony affords to others sufficient evidence that such events actually took place, and whether we are bound to acknowledge the authority of that mission in attestation of which the miracles are said to have been wrought.
If we assume the negative, either the benefits of a Revelation must be confined to those who witnessed its attestation by miracles, or similar attestations must be afforded to every man. But as no religious system can plead the authentication of perpetual miracles, either this principle is unsound, or we must abandon all hope of discovering a religion of Divine authority.
These remarks will lead us to notice,
4. The Competency of human Testimony to establish the Credibility of Miracles.—As miracles are facts, they, like other facts, may be reported; and, from the nature of the miracles in question, the competency of any man of ordinary understanding to determine whether they were actually wrought, cannot be doubted. If, therefore, the witnesses are credible; and if, in matters of the greatest moment in common life, we should not hesitate to act upon their testimony, it would be mere perverseness to reject it in the case of miracles.
Mr. Hume denies the credibility of miracles on the ground of human testimony. The substance of his objection is this: Experience is the ground of the credit which we give to human testimony; but this experience is by no means constant, for men often prevaricate and deceive. It is experience, in like manner, which assures us of those laws of nature, in the violation of which the notion of a miracle consists; but this experience is constant and uniform. Hence, it is contrary to experience that miracles should be true, but not contrary to experience that human testimony should be false; and, therefore, no human testimony can, in any case, render them credible.
To this objection, which has been met at large by many authors, we oppose the following remarks:
There is an ambiguity in the term "experience," and in the phrase "contrary to experience," which ought to be removed. Strictly speaking, the narrative of a fact is contrary to experience when the fact is related to have existed at a time and place, at which time and place we, being present, did not perceive it to exist; as if it should be asserted that in a particular room, and at a particular hour of a certain day, a man was raised from the dead, in which room, and at the time specified, we, being present and looking on, perceived no such event. Here the assertion is contrary to experience in the proper sense of the phrase; and this is a contrariety which no evidence can surmount, whether the fact be miraculous or otherwise.
But is this the experience and contrariety which Mr. Hume intended in the objection? It certainly is not. When, therefore, he asserts that miracles are contrary to experience, he must be understood to mean, either that we ourselves have not experienced them, (which is properly a want of experience, and not a contradiction of it,) or, that they have not been generally experienced by others. We say, "not generally;" for to assert that no miracle was ever experienced is to assume the subject in controversy.
To argue against miracles from the supposed unalterable course of nature, is a mere begging of the question. It is to argue upon a supposition which is wholly incapable of proof: that the course of nature is indeed so unalterably fixed, that even God himself, by whom its laws were ordained, cannot, when he sees fit, suspend their operation. On the other hand, to expect that miracles should become a matter of common experience, is to expect what is contrary to their nature, what would make them cease to be miracles, and what would totally destroy the purpose for which they were wrought.
Mr. Hume attempts to adjust, in a sort of metaphysical balance, the degrees of probability resulting from what he is pleased to call "opposite experiences;" that is, the experience of men's veracity on the one hand, and of the unalterable laws of nature on the other. But it will at once appear, that he only weighs the experience of those who never had the opportunity of witnessing a miracle, against the experience of those who declare that they were eye-witnesses of the fact. Instead, therefore, of weighing opposite experiences, properly so called, he is only balancing total inexperience on the one hand, against positive experience on the other.
There is a palpable fallacy in representing the experience of mankind as being opposite to the testimony on which our belief of miracles is founded. For the opposite experiences, as they are called, are not contradictory to each other, since there is no inconsistency in believing them both. A miracle necessarily supposes an established and generally unaltered course of nature, for in the interception of such a course lies the very essence of a miracle. Our experience, therefore, of the course of nature leads us to expect its continuance, and to act accordingly; but it does not prove that it is absolutely unalterable, nor does it set aside valid testimony of a deviation from it. How can our being personally unacquainted with a matter of fact which took place a thousand years ago, or in a distant part of the world, warrant us in rejecting the testimony of personal witnesses of the event? Common sense revolts at the absurdity of considering one man's ignorance or inexperience as a counterpoise to another man's knowledge and experience of a matter of fact. Yet on no better foundation does this favorite argument of infidelity rest.
But we may also remark, that "the evidence arising from human testimony is not solely derived from experience. On the contrary, testimony has a natural influence on belief, antecedent to experience. The early and unlimited assent given to testimony by children, gradually contracts as they advance in life; and it is therefore more consonant to truth to say, that our diffidence in testimony is the result of experience, than that our faith in it has this foundation."
"Besides, the uniformity of experience in favor of any fact is not a proof against its being reversed in a particular instance. The evidence arising from the single testimony of a man of known veracity, will go farther to establish a belief of its being actually reversed. And if his testimony be confirmed by a few others of the same character, we cannot withhold our assent to the truth of it."
"Now, though the operations of nature are governed by uniform laws, and though we have not the testimony of our senses in favor of any violation of them; still, if in particular instances we have the testimony of thousands of our fellow-creatures, and those, too, men of strict integrity, swayed by no motives of ambition or interest, but governed by the principles of common sense, that they were actually witnesses of these violations, the constitution of our nature obliges us to believe them."
We have now shown the nature and possibility of real miracles; that under certain circumstances they are to be regarded as a sufficient authentication, both of the Divine mission of those who, performed them, and of the doctrines which they taught; that as facts they are proper subjects of human testimony, and that credible testimony respecting them lays a competent foundation for our belief in them, and in those
Revelations which they were clearly designed to attest. Thus, the way is prepared for the consideration of the miracles recorded in Scripture.
II. Prophecy. This is the other great branch of the external evidence of a Revelation from God, and its nature and force may be pointed out before we examine either the miracles or the prophecies of the Bible. For, by ascertaining the general principles on which this kind of evidence rests, the consideration of particular cases will be rendered more easy and satisfactory. We will notice,
1. The Nature of Prophecy.—It may be defined to be "a miracle of knowledge." It is a declaration, description, or representation of something future, which is beyond the power of human sagacity to discover or calculate.
Prophecy is a miracle, because, to foresee and foretell future events, to which no existing cause necessarily and evidently leads, no train of probabilities points, is as much beyond the ability of man as to cure diseases with a word, or even to raise the dead. It is a miracle, too, the proof of which remains within itself. That such actions as may be properly termed miracles of power were ever performed, can be proved, at a distant period, only by human testimony, against which cavils may be raised, or causes for doubt advanced. But the man who reads a prophecy, and perceives the corresponding event, is himself the witness of the miracle. He sees, that thus it was predicted, and that thus it has come to pass.
Prophecies yet unfulfilled are miracles which at present are incomplete. These may be regarded as the seeds of future conviction, ready to grow up and bear their fruit whenever the corresponding facts shall be exhibited on the theater of the world. This kind of evidence has been so admirably contrived by the wisdom of God, that, in proportion as the lapse of ages might seem to weaken the argument derived from miracles long since performed, that very lapse serves only to strengthen the argument derived from the fulfillment of prophecy.
2. The Force of its Evidence.—The force of the evidence arising from the prediction of such events as human sagacity could not anticipate is at once apparent. Such predictions, whether in the form of declarations, descriptions, or representations of things future, are evidently supernatural, and must be divinely inspired. When, for instance, the events are distant many years or ages from the time of the prediction; when they depend on causes not so much as existing when the prophecy was uttered and recorded, and likewise upon various circumstances and a long arbitrary series of things, and the fluctuating uncertainties of human volitions; and especially when they depend not at all upon any external circumstances, nor upon any created being, but arise merely from the counsels and appointment of God, such events can be foreknown only by an omniscient Being, and can be foretold by him only to whom the "Father of lights" shall reveal them.
It follows, therefore, that whoever is manifestly endowed with this predictive power must, in that instance, speak and act by Divine inspiration, and what he declares must be received as the word of God.
The infidel author of "The Moral Philosopher" rather insinuates than attempts fully to establish a dilemma, with which to perplex those who regard prophecy as one of the proofs of a Divine Revelation. He thinks that either prophecy must respect "necessary events, as depending upon necessary causes, which might be certainly foreknown and predicted" without any Divine interposition; or that, if human actions are free, the possibility of prophecy must be given up, as it implies foreknowledge, which, if granted, would render them necessary.
To the first part of this objection we answer, that there are indeed many necessary events, dependent upon necessary causes, the existence and operation of which are within the compass of human knowledge. But to foretell such events would not be to prophesy, any more than to say that on a certain day and hour next year there will be an eclipse of the sun or moon, when that event has been previously ascertained by astronomical calculation.
Were we to allow that all events were necessary, yet, in a variety of instances, the argument from prophecy would not be at all affected; for the foretelling of necessary events in certain circumstances is beyond human intelligence, because they can be known to Him only by whose power those necessary causes on which they depend have been arranged, and who has prescribed the times of their operation.
Let us allow, for the sake of illustration, that the prophecy of Isaiah respecting the taking of Babylon by Cyrus was uttered, as it purports to have been, more than a century before Cyrus was born, and that all the actions of Cyrus and of his army, and those of the Babylonian monarch and his people, were necessitated. Is it to be maintained that the chain of necessitating causes, running through more than a century, could be traced by a human mind so as to describe the precise manner in which that fatality would unfold itself, even to the turning of the river, the drunken carousal of the inhabitants, and the neglect to shut the gates of the city? This being known to be above all human apprehension, would prove that the prediction was really a communication from God. Were events therefore subject to invincible fate, there might nevertheless be prophecy.
The other branch of the dilemma is founded on the notion that, if we allow the freedom of human actions, prophecy is impossible, because certain foreknowledge is contrary to that freedom, and renders events necessary.
Our reply is, that the objection is founded on a false assumption, the Divine foreknowledge having no more influence in making any future event necessary than human knowledge, in the degree in which it may exist. There is no moral causality in knowledge. This lies in the will, which is the determining and acting principle in every moral agent. The infallible judgment of God respecting contingent events no more causes them to be necessary, than our knowledge of a present truth is any cause of its being either true or present.
Things which depend upon a chain of necessary causes must be necessary, and as such God foreknows them; but it by no means follows that, from the foreknowledge of God concerning events which depend upon free causes, things otherwise supposed to be free will thereby unavoidably become necessary. The whole question lies in this: is the simple knowledge of an action a necessitating cause of the action? The answer must be in the negative, as every man's consciousness and common sense will assure him.
The second kind of evidence in attestation of a Divine Revelation is called Internal; to the nature of which, as also to its rank in the scale of evidence, we will briefly turn our attention.
1. Its Nature.—Internal evidence is that kind of evidence which arises from a consideration of the doctrines taught in the Holy Scriptures, as being consistent with the character of God, and promotive of the happiness of man. It is derived from the wonderful sublimity of the sacred volume, the perfect purity of its moral precepts, the profundity and importance of its discoveries, the exact agreement of all its parts, and its obvious tendency to promote the wellbeing of mankind.
2. Its Rank in the scale of Evidence.—On this subject very different opinions have been entertained. Some have advanced the notion that internal evidence ought not to be ranked, as a leading proof, with miracles and prophecy, because the proof from them is decisive and absolute. But for the same reason prophecy might be excluded from the rank of leading evidence, inasmuch as miracles alone are decisive and absolute. If there is any force at all in the argument from miracles, it goes the full length of rational proof of a Divine attestation, both to him who witnesses the miracles, and to him to whom they are credibly reported; and nothing more is absolutely necessary to enforce a rational conviction.
But should it please the Author of a revelation to superadd the farther evidence of prophecy, and also that of the obvious truthfulness and beneficial tendency of this revelation, it ought not to be disregarded, or thought to be of trifling import in its favor. For, though this additional evidence may not be necessary to establish a rational proof, it may have a tendency to rouse attention, and to leave objectors more obviously without excuse.
By others, the internal evidence has been placed first in order and importance, and upon it the force of the evidence from miracles and prophecy has been made to depend. Nothing, say they, is to be received as a revelation from God which does not contain doctrines worthy of his character and promotive of the good of mankind.
This, we reply, is readily admitted. But are we to try a professed Revelation by our own notions of what is worthy of God and beneficial to mankind? This would be to assume, that, independent of a Revelation, we know what God is, and that we are so perfectly acquainted with the character, relations, and wants of man as to determine what is most for his benefit. This, however, cannot be granted.
But again, to make internal evidence the primary test of a Divine Revelation, is to render the external testimony comparatively unimportant. For, if a Revelation is to contain an evidence of its truth, which shall be independent of all external testimony, the utility of the evidence of miracles is rendered very questionable. It is either unnecessary, or it is subordinate and dependent. But this notion is contradicted by the whole tenor of the Scriptures; for miracles are everywhere represented as a complete and absolute demonstration of the mission and doctrines of those by whom they were performed.
It is easy to discover the causes which have led to this error in regard to the true office and rank of the internal evidence of Revelation.
First, a hypothetical case has been assumed, and it has been asked, "If a doctrine absurd and wicked should be attested by miracles, is it to be admitted as Divine upon their authority?" The answer is, that this is a case which in the nature of things can never occur, and which cannot, therefore, be made the basis of an argument. We have seen already that a real miracle can be wrought by none but God, or by his commission. Therefore, whenever a real miracle takes place, in attestation of any doctrine, that doctrine cannot be either unreasonable or impious.
The second cause of the error has been, that the rational evidence of a Revelation has been confounded with the authenticating evidence. When the character, plans, and laws of God are made known, they carry to the reason of man, so far as they are comprehended, the demonstration which accompanies truth of any other kind. For, as the eye is formed to received light, so the rational powers of man are formed to receive conviction when the congruity of propositions is made evident. This is rational evidence, but it is not authenticating evidence.
Let us suppose that there is no external evidence to attest the Divine mission of those teachers from whom we have received the doctrines which appear to us to be so sublime, so important, so true. It will then follow that they had no means of knowing these doctrines to be from God, or of distinguishing them from the discoveries of their own mind. And if even they had, we can have no means of knowing that they are anything more than mere hnman opinions. They may be true, but of this we can have no infallible proof; for neither our own rational faculties, nor those of any other human being, are infallible. But even granting them to be true, they cannot be attested to be Divine. Add, then, the external testimony, and we have the attestation required. The rational evidence of the doctrines, in both cases, is the same; but this evidence is no proof that God revealed them. It is in external evidence alone that this proof is found.
From this distinction the relative importance of the External and Internal evidence may be further illustrated.
Rational evidence of the doctrines proposed to us, when it can be had, goes to establish their truth, so far as we can depend upon our judgment; but external testimony, if satisfactory, establishes their Divine authority, and consequently their absolute truth, leaving no appeal. It is of the most simple and decisive kind, and gives to unbelief the character of obvious perverseness and inconsistency: perverseness, because there is a clear opposition of the will rather than of the judgment in the case; inconsistency, because men act upon a much lower degree of evidence in the most important concerns of life.
In difficult doctrines, of a kind to give rise to a variety of opinions, rational evidence is accompanied with doubt; but the attestation of miracles rests on principles supported by the universal and constant experience of mankind: 1. That a real miracle is above human power; 2. That men unquestionably virtuous in every other respect are not likely to propagate a deliberate falsehood; and 3. That they should do so not only without advantage, but at the hazard of reproach, persecution, and death, contradicts all the known motives to action in human nature.
In strict propriety, therefore, miracles may be considered as the primary evidence of the truth of a Revelation, and every other species of proof as confirmatory. Prophecy and the internal evidence are leading proofs, but neither of them stands in the foremost place.
The third kind of evidence by which a Revelation from God may be confirmed is the collateral. But here we will only adduce a few instances, merely to illustrate this kind of testimony.
The collateral evidence of a Revelation from God may be its agreement with former Revelations, should any have been given; its adaptation to the condition of the world at the time of its communication, and to effect the great moral ends which it proposes; the agreement of its record of facts with the credible traditions and histories of the same times; the monuments, either natural or instituted, which may remain to attest the truth of its history; the concessions of adversaries in its favor; and, finally, the continuance of its adaptation to the case of the human family to the present day.
We have now briefly considered the several classes of evidence by which a Divine Revelation may be authenticated; but before we proceed to a practical application of these evidences it will be necessary to establish the Genuineness, the Authenticity, and the Integrity of the Holy Scriptures.