Sic et Non on evidence

A: … What, like we don’t have video of him?

B: Well yeah, I suppose so.

A: But no one I know thinks he’s the sort of thing you can videotape. Maybe you could expect to have this sort of evidence for Olympians – though even then I’m not sure.

B: That’s not the way the Bible talks about it. The heavens are opening all the time, lepers are being healed, fire is coming down out of heaven, smoke is covering Mt. Sion. That seems easy enough to videotape.

A: “All the time” seems too strong. About half the Old Testament miracles are during the exodus to the Holy Land, which is a relatively short period in salvation history. After that, the miracles are mostly for Elijah, with a few famous ones in Daniel. The videotaping standard won’t even work on that many of them: sure, it would be impressive to see fire come down on Elijah’s altar, but would it be that impressive to see Daniel all night in the lion’s den? If you saw the widow’s son rise from the dead, wouldn’t you just assume he revived?

B: Ah ha! You don’t even find the evidence impressive! Maybe Daniel just got lucky (The Romans couldn’t always make lions eat criminals) Maybe Elijah just got lucky – there are all sorts of stories about people with no vital signs reviving.

A: I took it another way. Big, videotapable miracles seem to happen at phase transitions in Salvation History: the shift from Israel being a group of landless slaves to being a nation; the shift from this nation ruled by kings to being ruled by prophets; the shift from their being a nation to being a wandering people, etc. The first shift is the most significant and accounts for half the miracles, most of the rest occur at the second phase, and a few happen at the last, along with some outlier miracles on the fringes. A Christian would expect the greatest concentration of miracles to occur with Christ, and then for the great public miracles to cease.

B: So we’re in an inter-miracle period.

A: Like the vast majority of history. Scripture records two thousand years of narrative history, and not a hundred years of it are great times of miracle. Even that overstates the case since we certainly don’t mean that we find a hundred years of continuous miracles when we add them all up.

B: But then there really isn’t evidence.

A: I was only trying to speak to your claim that Scripture makes us expect that miracles happen all the time.

B: Okay, but that just leaves you proving a small point but losing the main one. When we look closer at Biblical evidence, we see that it’s either unconvincing (a lucky man in a lion’s den) or that it only happens in rare, transition moments of history. But we need evidence do get us to believe now!

A: But if miracles happen primarily at transition points in Salvation History, then they’re not meant to get unbelievers to believe but to get believers to change their beliefs.  If anything, Scripture doesn’t hold out much hope for the power of miracles to cause unbelievers to believe. Consider Pharaoh. Consider that the plot to kill Christ was a response to the raising of Lazarus. Consider the final moral of Lazarus and Dives.

B: You can’t deny that a world with more signs and evidence is one where more people would believe. You can’t doubt that if everyone saw the heavens open up that belief would be far more reasonable.

A: I think that’s exactly what we’re disagreeing about. Your idea of God is a counterfactual opposed to both what we know about God by reason (which gives us no reason to expect videotape-style evidence or great theophanies) and what we know by revelation (since Scripture sees miracles as for believers) Just where are you getting this view of God that tells you he should open up the skies for everyone? What source of evidence can you appeal to prove this is the sort of thing that a God would do?

 

 

 

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15 Comments

  1. robalspaugh said,

    November 26, 2015 at 5:15 am

    It turns out I’m writing something on this very topic “now” (where now is a fairly dragged out space of time). What would you do with the miracles of the saints? Put them in the micro-history of the their individual lives, as part of the public-private distinction? But that would make something like, say, Fatima an outlier.

    • November 26, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Sainthood is an addition to the liturgy, and since the liturgy is the primary public act of salvation history it makes sense that sainthood must be confirmed by miracles. Even though the saint doesn’t change the center of salvation history or its locus of authority, he is still a real change in it so far as he introduces new liturgical prayers and everything that comes with them. I’d give a similar account of Fatima or Lourdes: the miracle arises so far as it manifests how some addition must be made to the content of belief, whether in the liturgy or even in dogma. Here again, the miracles are for believers, confirming that they need to add something to the content of their belief. Miracles might convert a non-believer here or there (though Fatima seemed ideally suited for this, and one isn’t blown away by conversion numbers) but this is to the side of what they were meant for.

  2. November 26, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I notice that A did not respond to B’s claim that more people would believe with more and stronger miracles. Whether or not God “should” do this is a separate question. Or does A mean to say that since God should not do this, grand miracles would convince people that atheism is true?

    • November 26, 2015 at 10:07 am

      This isn’t a very good dialogue since B comes off as a pure whipping boy. I think you’ve isolated his strongest case: the idea that more people would believe with more and better miracles. The response to this is that it is an empirical claim contrary to God as understood by reason and in Scripture. Natural theology gives us no reason to think that God would do miracles at all (even if, given miracles, it can find them reasonable) and Scripture and experience seem to flatly contradict the claim that miracles convert non-believers.

  3. November 26, 2015 at 10:37 am

    I agree that natural theology gives us no reason to think that God would perform miracles, and in fact gives us some reason to think that he wouldn’t (in order to contribute more causality to secondary causes.)

    Describing Scripture and experience as “flatly contradicting” the claim that miracles convert non-believers, however, is going to far. Certainly we know from experience that non-believers occasionally convert on account of a miracle. I know at least one person like that myself, and there are others where miracles were at least involved. But it’s true that they are not very effective, and that is probably the point made by Scripture as well. But as soon as you admit that there can be any effectiveness at all, even to the slightest degree, the likely conclusion would be that more and stronger miracles would convert more people. And this is very relevant if a large part of the reason that miracles are not very convincing to people, is that when they are examined in detail they very frequently appear to be badly-understood natural events. For example, I explained to someone once (a Catholic) that most incorrupt saints are not completely incorrupt; that it is a matter of degree. He had been unaware of this and responded, “Then why does anyone think it is miracle?” I said, “well, a lot of people don’t, and for that reason.”

  4. GeoffSmith said,

    November 26, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    I appreciate this post. Thanks, man.

  5. skholiast said,

    November 27, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    The issue of B’s whipping-boy status aside, I think this is a great post. Putting the miracle episodes into perspective (100 years out of 2,000) is a very good point; the claim that miracles are in some sense “meant for believers” is both more problematic and more compelling. To raise the question of what “miracle” means to the writers and compilers of scripture is a very deft move because it can prescind from the debate about “whether miracles occur” and simply ask what the very concept of miracle entails for these writers — and then whether deniers of miracle, or those who pine after signs and wonders, are even thinking of the same thing when they use the word.

    Your further point that the miracles of saints extends from the liturgy — I would have said, the Eucharist — is a strong continuation of the clam that “miracles are for believers” and makes for strong retro-consistency with your Biblical claim.

    To me, what this post really does decisively is raise the question — what do we mean by “belief”?

  6. Curio said,

    November 28, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    My main problem with this is that we seem to be living in an age of abundant and overwhelming miracles. Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Fr. Schiffer’s Jesuits who survived the bomb, abundance of miraculous healings associated with recently canonized saints, Marian apparitions, Eucharistic miracles in Argentina, Poland, India etc. etc.

    • robalspaugh said,

      November 28, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      This is a bit what I was getting at as well, and I’m still not sure James has carved up the territory correctly. I think he’s quite correct about miracles being for believers and not unbelievers. I also think he’s got the right idea in general with the role “age of miracles” play in Salvation History.

      But I think there’s more to be said about post-Easter miracles than just “extensions of the liturgy.” It seems to me that miracles have to track the Public-Private distinction in revelation. I don’t think that mystical visions, being sustained on the Eucharist alone, or St. Patrick’s deeds were done purely as an addition to the liturgy.

      Still working through how I would do it instead, though. There’s a draft post still getting tinkered with. Imaginatively, all post-Easter miracles are just Easter being scattered across history.

  7. November 28, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Augustine in The Unity of the Church, writing against the Donatists (who occasionally appealed to miracles as a proof of their being the true Church), could be read as supporting the view that miracles of the saints are for believers; he argues that the meaning and the worth of such miracles arises from their occurring in the Catholic Church, not because they show that it is the Catholic Church.

    • robalspaugh said,

      November 29, 2015 at 6:39 am

      What about something like the miracles of St. Patrick to convert Ireland? I think to hold this thesis you may have to be clearer on what is meant by believer. Already cooperating with grace somehow?

      • November 29, 2015 at 1:14 pm

        St. Augustine obviously does not consider the miracles of St. Patrick.

        But I don’t in any case know which miracles you mean; the only ones I know of were directly relevant to conversion were in the legendary face-off with the druids, in which the druids were also working wonders. This is obviously along the same lines as Moses versus the priests before Pharaoh, assuming that it isn’t merely pious legend based on the story of Moses: that is, the ability of a miracle to persuade is somewhat blunted if the other side is apparently working them, too.

      • robalspaugh said,

        November 29, 2015 at 2:09 pm

        Right, but one element of James’ claim is that miracles are not evidence for unbelievers, or at least that is accidental to their primary purpose. While that claim has a strong scriptural basis for it, I think it founders some times. The apostolic mirabilia of St. Patrick (yes, here I am assuming they are not pious legend) are done to persuade the pagans of Ireland, not believers. Some miracles, it seems, are meant to be evidence for unbelievers–or like I mentioned in previous comment, it requires a bit of a clarification on what we mean by (un)believer.

  8. November 29, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    The apostolic mirabilia of St. Patrick (yes, here I am assuming they are not pious legend) are done to persuade the pagans of Ireland, not believers.

    I’m not so sure. What was done to persuade the pagans of Ireland was to preach the gospel to them. What did the miracles actually do? (1) They encouraged Patrick and believers to continue boldly, by showing them that the druids had less power than they seemed; (2) they encouraged later believers who heard about them; (3) they led the kings and others to at least to listen to the gospel message. (3) is a fairly limited result, and I think there’s still plenty of room to hold that even such a limited result was an entirely secondary result as well: the mission of Patrick and his early converts would still have had to be done and with as much courage if they had all been martyred instead and nothing come directly of it.

  9. skholiast said,

    December 16, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Finally got my thoughts in order enough to post on them. If you feel I’ve mis-applied your points at all, please say so.


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