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THE EARLY CHURCH.
FIRST PERIOD, FROM PENTECOST TO CONSTANTINE,
THE CHURCH UNDER THE APOSTLES.
I. -CREDIBILITY OF THE APOSTOLIC HISTORY. The dogmatic denial of the supernatural is the mainspring of attack upon the apostolic history as given in the New Testament. Renan speaks for the whole circle of kindred souls when he says, “It is an absolute rule of criticism to deny a place in history to narratives of miraculous circumstances."1 From their stand-point,
” miracle is only another name for delusion or falsehood; all records of miracles belong to the region of myths, legends, or intentional fabrications.
The chief objection to the absolute rule of Renan is the omission of a very important word. His language should be : “ It is an absolute rule of my criticism," etc. This wording brings out properly the personal assumption which is embodied in his, or any equivalent, state1 The Apostles, Intro.
ment. His rule, as stated by himself, is simply a private opinion arbitrarily set forth under the guise of an universal maxim.
Renan, however, denies that his rule is the product of arbitrary assumption. It has, he maintains, the most palpable basis possible. It is no uncertain item of a metaphysical system ; “it is simply the dictation of observation.” Here, again, we must accuse the learned author of a grave omission. The qualifying pronoun is no less required in this than in the previous statement. His argument, reduced to its essential contents, amounts to this: I have never seen a miracle ; I have never had communication with a trustworthy person who has seen a miracle : therefore, from the dawn of time until now no miracle has ever occurred. How much broader the conclusion than the premises ! Very likely M. Renan never saw a miracle; but he is not entitled to make his experience the absolute standard of the experience of all men in all ages: to do this is wholesale assumption and begging of the question.
But give us the proof, says Renan; establish the reality of a single miracle : otherwise, we shall be entitled to reject every account of miraculous events which antiquity has handed down to us. This challenge is evidently no call to bring up all the arguments which can be adduced in favor of any particular miracle of Christ or of his apostles. The strain of our dogmatist implies that nothing but a miracle in the present, or the near neighborhood of the present, could satisfy. It is absolutely necessary that he himself, or the learned critics in whom he has implicit confidence, should be on hand with their tests. It would not do to depend upon the testimony of ignorant and credulous people. Even the learned critics themselves must be well prepared, for if they were taken by surprise they would be certain to suspect artifice. Nothing remains, then, but to have the miracle wrought according to prearrangement. A pre-arranged miracle! The Almighty compelled to take part in a show gotten up by human caprice and presumption! The barricade of the critic's “ absolute rule,” it is to be feared, will have to be left standing. The sayings and the doings of Christ, if they have been correctly reported by the evangelists, surely discourage the expectation that miracles will be wrought in answer to the challenge of unbelief. Clear, rational considerations stand equally in the way of such an expectation. A miracle having once been wrought under the supposed circumstances, its proof would rest upon the evidence of testimony no less than that of any miracle already on record. The same unbelief which called for the first would call for a second miracle, and in default of a satisfactory response to its arbitrary demand would cast suspicion upon the accounts of the previous miracle, finding possibly in the very fact of pre-arrangement an occasion for accusing the witnesses of having sold their verdict. On the other hand, if every demand were answered with a miracle, the educative power of law would be nullified, and Christianity would descend from the high office of a spiritual teacher to the poor function of ministering to an inordinate greed for supernatural manifestations. Not the demand of a captious unbelief, but the faith of a devoted colaborer with God, is the appropriate channel for the descent of supernatural virtue. The miracle is incidental to a work of beneficent intent and high importance.
No doubt one may occupy a superstitious attitude toward the supernatural, and affirm miraculous intervention where there is no warrant for the affirmation; but, on the other hand, it is quite possible to occupy a superstitious attitude toward nature, to lose sight of the might and independence of spirit in a nerveless awe before the strength and uniformities of material forces. The latter superstition may be thought to be more respectable than the former; still it is a superstition, and to entertain it is no evidence of a superior and wellbalanced mind.
Speculative objections to miracles are without convincing force, as has indeed been allowed by some of the more discerning opponents themselves of the supernatural. So long as God is not relegated to the hapless and nondescript condition of a being who is destitute of freedom and intelligence, there is a clear possibility of His intervention in the course of things; yea, one might say a clear probability, since the extraordinary is intrinsically suited to reach certain results which the ordinary mode of working cannot compass.
The reality of the New Testament miracles, then, is a subject which may claim an open field in the sphere of historical and rational evidences. Like all facts of history, it does not of course admit of strict demonstration. Yet it is supported by considerations which come with peculiar cogency to a candid mind. These early miracles had an adequate occasion in the greatest fact of religious history, — the introduction of Christianity. They were wrought without any striving after show or ostentation. They appear in almost every instance to have been prompted by a holy benevolence. They are ascribed to agents who were instrumental in producing the grandest moral and spiritual revolution the world has ever known. They are recorded in narratives which bear as prominent marks of honest intention as any narratives whatever in the whole range of history. These narratives are broadly contrasted in spirit and contents with the great mass of apocryphal, mythological, or legendary writings. There is in them no sign of a preference for the magical over the moral. The miracle is made accessory to ethical and spiritual aims. It appears as incidental to an era of grand uplift, and is woven into the record of this era. So far from being a mere attachment to revelation, or means of its confirmation, it is a part of the organism of revelation, an integral factor in the great historic process by which God has not merely intimated, but powerfully emphasized and richly illustrated, His gracious purpose.
The expulsion of the supernatural from the record places criticism under bonds to reconstruct the apostolic history. In at least one instance, within the century, this demand has been met with great earnestness. The reconstruction effort of the Tübingen school, especially as represented by Ferdinand Christian Baur, whatever it may be charged with, cannot be charged with lack of industry and painstaking. This school, it is true, did not start out with any such open and unqualified edict against miracles as that contained in the dictum of M.