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ON THE ANTECEDENT PROBABILITY OF THE
A fact is properly called “ improbable,” only when it has some quality or circumstance attached to it which operates to the disadvantage of evidence adduced in its behalf. We can scarcely avoid forming an opinion for or against any statement which meets us; we feel well disposed towards some accounts or reports, averse from others, sometimes on no reason whatever beyond our accidental frame of mind at the moment, sometimes because the facts averred flatter or thwart our wishes, coincide or interfere with the view of things familiar to us, please or startle our imagination, or on other grounds equally vague and untrustworthy. Such anticipations about facts are as little blameable as the fancies which spontaneously rise in the mind about a person's stature and appearance before seeing him: and, like such fancies, they are dissipated at once when the real state of the case is in any way ascertained. They are simply notional; and form no presumption in reason, for or against the facts to which they relate.
An antecedent improbability then in certain facts, to be really such, must avail to prejudice the evidence which is offered in their behalf, and must be of a nature to diminish or destroy its force. Thus it is improbable, in the highest degree, that our friend should have done an act of fraud or injustice, and improbable again, but in a slight degree, that our next-door neighbour should have been highly promoted, or that he should have died suddenly. We do not acquiesce in any evidence that comes to hand even for the latter occurrence, and in none but the very best for the former. Again there is a
general improbability attaching to the notion that the members of certain sects or of certain political parties should be of this or that cast of opinions, feelings, or manners; and, on the other hand, though there is no general improbability that individuals of the poorest class should make large fortunes, yet a strong probability may lie against certain given persons of those classes in particular.
Now it may be asserted that there is no presumption whatever against miracles generally in the ages after the Apostles, though there may be and is a certain antecedent improbability in particular miracles.
There is no presumption against Ecclesiastical miracles generally, because inspiration has stood the brunt of any such antecedent objection, whatever it be worth, by its own supernatural histories, and in establishing their certainty in fact, has disproved their impossibility in the abstract. If miracles are antecedently improbable, it is either from want of a cause to which they may be referred, or of experience of similar events in other times and places. What neither has been before, nor can be attributed to an existing cause, is not to be expected, or is improbable. But Ecclesiastical miracles are occurrences not without a parallel, for they follow upon Apostolic miracles, and they are referrible to the Author of the latter as an All-sufficient Cause. Whatever be the regu. larity and stability of nature, interference with it can be, because it has been ; there is One who both has power over His own work and who has not been unwilling to exercise it. In this point of view, then, Ecclesiastical miracles are more advantageously circumstanced than those of Scripture.
What has happened once, may happen again; the force of the presumption against miracles lies in the opinion entertained of the inviolability of nature, to which the Creator seems to “have given a law which shall not be broken.” When once that law is shewn to be but general, not necessary, and, (if
the word may be used,) when its prestige is once destroyed, there is nothing to shock the imagination in a miraculous interference twice or thrice, as well as once. What never has happened is improbable in a sense quite distinct from that in which a thing is improbable which has before now happened; the improbability of the latter may be greater or less, it may be very great; but whatever its strength, it is different in kind from that which, without the possibility of refutation, admits of being called by those who reject it an impossibility.
It may be urged in reply, that the abstract argument against miracles generally has little or no force, directly the mere doctrine of a Creator and Supreme Governor is admitted, and prior to any reference to Scripture history; that there is no question among religious men of the existence of a Cause adequate to the production of miracles any where or at any period; the question rather is whether He will work them; the question simply is whether the Ecclesiastical miracles are probable, not whether there is a general presumption against them all as miracles; and that while the Scripture miracles can do little towards a recommendation of subsequent miracles, as miracles, for there is little needs doing here, they actually tend to discredit them, as being subsequent, for from the nature of the case irregularities can be but rarely allowed in any system. It is at first sight not to be expected that the Author of nature should interrupt His own harmonious order at all, though powerful to do so; and therefore the fact of His having already done so makes it only less probable that He will do so again. Moreover, could a recurrence of miraculous agency be anticipated, it would be the recurrence of a like agency, not any manifestation of power whatever, however different from it; whereas the miracles of the ages subsequent to the Apostles are on the whole so very unlike those of which we read in Scripture, in their object, circumstances, nature,
and evidence, as even to be disproved by the very contrast. This is what may be objected.
Now as far as this representation involves the discussion of the character and circumstances of the Ecclesiastical miracles, it will come under consideration in the following section; here we are only engaged with the abstract question, whether the circumstance that miracles have once occurred, and that under certain circumstances and with certain characteristics, does or does not prejudice a proof, when offered, of their having occurred again, and that under other circumstances and with other characteristics.
On this point many writers have expressed opinions which it is difficult to justify. Thus Warburton, in the course of some excellent remarks on the Christian miracles, is led to propose a certain test of true miracles founded on their professed object, and suggests that this will furnish us with means of drawing the line of supernatural agency in the early Church. “If [the final cause,]” he says, “be so important as “ to make the miracle necessary to the ends of the dispensation, “this is all that can be reasonably required to entitle it to our “ belief;" so far he is vindicating the Apostolic miracles, and his reasoning is unexceptionable; but he adds in a note, “Here, by the way, let me observe, that what is now said “gives that criterion which Dr. Middleton and his opponents, “ in a late controversy concerning miracles, demanded of one “ another, and which yet, both parties, for some reasons or “ other, declined to give ; namely, some certain mark to “ enable men to distinguish, for all the purposes of religion, “ between true and certain miracles, and those which were “ false or doubtful b.” He begins by saying that miracles which subserve a certain object deserve our consideration, he ends by saying that those which do not subserve it do not
Div. Leg. ix. 5.
deserve our consideration, and he makes himself the judge whether they subserve it or not.
Douglas too, after observing that the miracles of the second and third centuries have a character less clearly supernatural and an evidence less cogent than those of the New Testament, and that the fourth and fifth are “ ages of credulity and superstition," and the miracles which belong to them “wild and ridiculous," proceeds to lay down a decisive criterion between true miracles and their counterfeits, and this he considers to be the gift of inspiration in their professed workers. “Though it may be “ a matter more of curiosity than of use, to endeavour to “ determine the exact time when miraculous powers were “ withdrawn from the Church, yet I think that it may be “ determined with some degree of exactness. The various “ opinions of learned protestants, who have extended them “ at all after the Apostles, shew how much they have been “ at a loss with regard to this, which has been urged by “papists with an air of triumph, as if protestants not being “ able to agree when the age of miracles was closed, this were “ an argument of its not being closed as yet. If there be any " thing in this objection, though perhaps there is not, I think “ I have it in my power to obviate it, by fixing upon a period, “ beyond which we may be certain that miraculous powers “ did not subsist.” Then he refers to his argument in favour of the New Testament miracles, that “what we know of the “ attributes of the Deity, and of the usual methods of His “ government, incline us to believe that miracles will never be “ performed by the agency and instrumentality of men, but “ when these men are set apart and chosen by God to be “ His ambassadors, as it were, to the world, to deliver some “ message or to preach some doctrine as a law from heaven; “ and in this case their being vested with a power of working “ miracles is the best credential of the divinity of their