Chapter 5. Newman's Alleged Scepticism

{59} I QUOTED at the opening of this essay a passage in which Professor Huxley suggests that it would be easy to extract a very effective "Primer of Infidelity" from Cardinal Newman's writings, especially from the Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles, the Tract 85 on Holy Scripture in Relation to the Catholic Creed, and the Essay on Development. And I admit that this might be accomplished; and yet I no more admit that Newman's mind is essentially sceptical, than I admit that Professor Huxley's is essentially credulous because it would be possible by careful selection to get a good deal out of his writings which might furnish a primer of fundamental beliefs. The very passage by which Professor Huxley illustrates his remark will serve admirably to show how very empty of true significance the remark is. He says that "there is something really impressive in the magnificent contempt with which Dr. Newman sweeps aside alike those who offer and those who demand what ordinary men call evidence for miracles." And in proof of this he quotes the following from the Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles

"Some infidel authors advise us to accept no miracles which would not have a verdict in their favour in a Court of Justice; that is, they employ against Scripture a {60} weapon which Protestants would confine to attacks upon the Church; as if moral and religious questions required legal proofs, and evidence were the test of truth." [Note 1] And Professor Huxley goes on—"'As if evidence were the test of truth!' although the truth in question is the occurrence or non-occurrence of certain phenomena at a certain time or place. This sudden revelation of the great gulf fixed between the ecclesiastical and the scientific mind, is enough to take away the breath of one unfamiliar with the clerical organ." I should rather say that this remark of Professor Huxley's, as coming from one who professes familiarity with the essay in question, is enough to take away the breath of any one unfamiliar with the scientific organ. Read in its context, Dr. Newman's observation is not only not startling, but is a mere truism. The essayist had been arguing that a fact may be, and is in multitudes of instances, just as true even though there be no evidence to prove it true, as it is when it is attested by the most incontrovertible evidence. The evidence may be our best or even our only ground for believing it, but the absence of such evidence does not in the least disprove the reality of the fact, it only deprives us of any good reason for believing the fact.

Professor Huxley would be about the last man, I suppose, to maintain that evidence is really the test of truth, instead of being merely the path by which we obtain access to the truth. There are millions of truths to which we have as yet no access because we have no evidence of them, but which are {61} nevertheless just as much truths as the ponderability of the atmosphere was a truth for all the centuries before it was discovered that the air had weight, or the tendency of the moon to fall towards the earth before Newton discovered it. Instead of revealing "the great gulf fixed between the ecclesiastical and the scientific mind," the words of Newman which Professor Huxley quotes are indefinitely more strict and scientific than the very unscientific words in which his scientific opponent criticizes them. Indeed, a greater or more careless bit of interpretation of a very exact writer I never read than Professor Huxley's criticism. Newman's whole drift in the passage from which Professor Huxley makes what he seems to consider this startling extract, is as plain as words can make it. He reminds his readers that evidence for a class of facts is of two kinds—the evidence that there is such a class of facts in existence, and the evidence that a particular event belonging to that class really took place. He insists that when evidence for the real existence of the class has been satisfactorily made out, the strong antecedent improbability against a totally new class of facts is removed, and that it is then reasonable to accept much less convincing evidence on the second head than we ought to require if we had reason to doubt whether such a class of facts existed at all. But even when we are satisfied on that head, he insists that in reference to events of this kind which excite men's wonder and admiration, we ought "to be prepared for fiction and exaggeration in the narrative to an indefinite extent." [Note 2] He believes in all the Scripture {62} miracles, because he believes in "the inspiration of Scripture" as imposed upon us by the same authority which has given us revelation as a whole; but he points out that, apart from the general principle of the inspiration of Scripture, there are very many of the Scripture miracles in which there would be nothing in the narrative to compel belief. Of course he maintains, with all the apologists, that there are leading miracles, like the resurrection of our Lord, which are supported by an overwhelming amount of proof, at all events to all those who begin with a belief in God, and an expectation therefore of some manifestation to men of His character and purposes. He holds with regard to miracles, that only "a few can be exhibited with evidence of so cogent and complete a character as to demand his [the student's] acceptance," apart from the general principle of the inspiration of Scripture, which he regards as covering all Scripture miracles which would otherwise be doubtful; while as to the alleged miracles of ecclesiastical history, "a great number of them, as far as the evidence goes, are neither entirely true nor entirely false, but have very various degrees of probability viewed one with another; all of them recommended to his [the student's] devout attention by the circumstance that others of the same family have been proved to be true, and all prejudiced by his knowledge that so many others, on the contrary, are certainly not true. It will be his wisdom, then, not to reject or scorn accounts of miracles where there is a fair chance of their being true; but to allow himself to be in suspense, to raise his mind to Him of whom they may possibly be telling, to 'stand in awe and sin not,' and to ask for light, yet to do no more; not boldly to put forward {63} what, if it be from God, yet has not been put forward by Him. What He does in secret, we must think over in secret; what He has openly showed in the sight of the heathen, we must publish abroad, 'crying aloud and sparing not.' An alleged miracle is not untrue because it is unproved; nor is it excluded from our faith because it is not admitted into our controversy. Some are for our conviction, and these we are to 'confess with the mouth' as well as 'believe with the heart'; others are for our comfort and encouragement, and these we are to 'keep and ponder them in our heart,' without urging them upon unwilling ears." [Note 3]

It seems to me that nothing could be more candid or more reasonable than this statement—granting Dr. Newman his general principle that all Scripture is inspired as to matters of fact, so that Scripture narratives of miracles stand on that ground, and on that ground alone, on a different footing from all other such narratives. It is irrational in the highest degree for any man who is absolutely convinced of the resurrection of our Lord to ask for "legal" proofs of other miracles of the same class, and manifesting the same character; just as it would be irrational in the highest degree for any man who knew a friend intimately to ask for legal proofs that he was innocent of an alleged crime, before believing him to be innocent of it. It may be perfectly right in a Court of law to require legal proofs of guilt, and when there are adequate legal proofs of guilt to condemn the accused in the absence of any legal disproof of their validity; but it is not right, it is pure {64} folly, for those who have far better evidence on the subject within their reach than any Court of law can have, to allow their judgment to be overruled by the rules of a Court of law. The strict rules of legal evidence are very valuable for those who have access to no better evidence, but they rely, and rely rightly, on evidence as much below the best to which the select few have access, as it is above the best to which the world in general has access. A man might just as well defer to the rules of evidence accepted by a Court of law in relation to a fact of which his own memory and conscience are (to him) the final and conclusive evidence, as in relation to a fact of which his intimate knowledge of a friend gave him far better assurance than any evidence a Court of law could collect. It is simply a truism to say that we should be highly unreasonable, not specially reasonable, creatures, if we always demanded legal proof before giving our hearty belief; and I think that this applies even to specific miracles directly we are satisfied of the existence of the class of events called miracles, and of the moral and religious conditions under which the specific miracles are said to have occurred. If I am convinced, as I heartily am, of the resurrection of our Lord, to doubt that He stilled the tempest, and raised the dead, when this is related of Him by the same authorities and in the same spirit in which His resurrection is recorded, seems to me not a reasonable but a most unreasonable kind of doubt. And yet this is the sort of doubt which Professor Huxley expects us to foster in ourselves, only on the ground that there would not be sufficient separate evidence of the latter events if they stood quite apart, and in no organic connection with the first. However, I am not arguing {65} the question, except so far as to show how candid and in every sense reasonable is Newman's mode of presenting it, and how utterly unjust it is to accuse him of laying down principles which place a great gulf between the ecclesiastical and the scientific mind. Professor Huxley's insinuation, that it is because miracles "may or have served a moral or religious end," that Newman encourages the belief in them is absolutely without a particle of foundation. It is not because they may serve, or have served, a moral or religious end that Newman regards them as more or less credible; but exclusively because they belong to a class of which the real existence has been proved by what he considers irrefragable evidence, that he demands a predisposition to accept them on sufficient external attestation, under any circumstances which bring them fairly within the conditions constituting that class. I suppose that if no one had ever heard of an active volcano, the accounts received of a great eruption such as took place a year or two ago in Java and Sumatra would be rightly received at first with extreme incredulity; and yet that, knowing what we do of those natural phenomena, there was no predisposition amongst scientific men to doubt the facts then narrated so long as there appeared to be clear individual testimony to those facts.

It is just the same with the Christian miracles. If the greatest of these rests on what Christians regard as overwhelming evidence, the lesser miracles are looked upon without any of that preliminary incredulity which we should rightly feel, if no event of the kind had ever been established to our satisfaction. All that Newman insists upon is, that "our feeling towards the ecclesiastical miracles turns much less on the evidence producible for {66} them, than on our view concerning their antecedent probability. If we think such interpositions of Providence likely, or not unlikely, there is quite enough evidence existing to convince us that they really do occur; if we think them as unlikely as they appear to Douglas, Middleton, and others, then even evidence as great as that which is producible for the miracles of Scripture would not be too much, nay, perhaps not enough, to conquer an inveterate, deep-rooted, and as it may be called, ethical incredulity." [Note 4] And then he goes on to show, that those who believe that there is a special Divine presence in the Church, are predisposed to expect from that special Divine presence the same kind of effects as they had expected from the divinity of Christ, and had actually found in the records of His life. In fact, the whole "gulf" which exists, if any exists, between Dr. Newman and Professor Huxley, is described in the following sentence of the former: "The direct effect of evidence is to create a presumption, according to its strength, in favour of the fact attested; it does not appear how it can create a presumption the other way." That is perfectly true, and is most pertinent where the defect of evidence is due, as in almost all historical cases, to the insufficient investigation which took place at the time, or to the loss of the records of that investigation, if there was investigation. But of course it does not apply to contemporary events where good evidence must usually have been producible, if it existed, and where it was challenged, but not produced. In that case the inadequacy of the evidence may amount to proof that good evidence does not exist at all, although if the {67} alleged event had really happened, good evidence for it must have existed at the time. But Newman is confessedly arguing concerning the evidence of long past events, of which it would be impossible to assert that the slightness of the testimony actually adduced, furnished an indirect proof that there was no better evidence to give. It would be extremely difficult to imagine much slighter evidence than that which exists for the Trojan war as a real event; yet no one would say that, such as it is, it is of a kind to establish a presumption unfavourable to the reality of such a war. So far as it goes—and that is not far—it tends to create a presumption that there was such a war. And the same may be said for almost all the evidence, however slight and insufficient it may be, of which Newman is speaking. It is only when we know that adequate evidence must have existed, if the event happened at all, and that it was challenged and not forthcoming, that Newman's remark is untrue. It is not only true, but a truism in relation to events of which the records are more or less obliterated.

Where then is the trace of Newman's sceptical bias? It is impossible to furnish more abundant proof than his writings contain of his profound belief, first in the supernatural government of the world in general, next in the specially Divine revelation granted to the Jewish people, and lastly in the great fact of the incarnation, and of the foundation of a Church in which the same supernatural presence that was incarnate in Christ was immanent. He firmly believes that these antecedent convictions are essential for any due estimate of the miraculous element in the history of the Jewish and Christian Churches; and though he {68} holds these convictions with all his heart, he still appreciates with the soberest good sense the character of the special evidence, or defect of evidence, for all the alleged miracles which he examines. Would it have furnished a better guarantee for Newman's Christian faith if he had not sifted this special evidence with the sobriety and discrimination which he has actually displayed, for example, in reducing the alleged miracle of "The Thundering Legion" to its true proportions? On the contrary, it is precisely that sobriety and discrimination which wins a certain respect for his judgment when he expresses his belief as he does in relation to the well-attested failure of the Emperor Julian to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, that there was something in the story (as recounted by Julian's own friend, and as a fragment of a letter from the hand of the Emperor himself confirms it) of that fiery outbreak which prevented the rebuilding of the Temple, beyond a mere strange coincidence; though of course the concurrence of a great outburst of natural forces with the expression of the Christian belief that the enterprise would fail, is regarded as a mere coincidence by all sceptics. There is nothing which so completely refutes the theory of Newman's deep-rooted scepticism as the clearness and candour with which he discusses and sums up the evidence for and against mediŠval miracles.

After all, the gravamen of the assertion, that Newman's nature is essentially sceptical, is to be found in the heartiness and sincerity with which he accepted our Lord's teaching, "Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed;" in other words, in his belief that it is the predisposition to find what is Divine in the world which enables us to discern it when it {69} comes within our range of experience. That is the true idealist philosophy, and not only the true idealist philosophy, but the true realist philosophy also. The mathematician finds in himself the principles which enable him to compute the courses of the planets, and the eclipses and occultations of the sun, moon, and stars; and if he had not had those principles within him, he would never have been able to declare what had taken place so many centuries before he was born, and what will take place for so many centuries after he is dead. The novelist and the dramatist finds in himself the key to the character of his fellow-men, and without that key would never be able to create for us so much which not only helps us to understand our fellow-men, but which positively adds to our knowledge of our own hearts. And so, too, the theologian would never find anything but an enigma in revelation, if he did not use the Divine anticipations which prompt him from within, to help him to unriddle the traces of Divine agency which he finds without. It is no more a disproof of miracles to say that as a rule they are only believed to happen by those who have a predisposition to believe, than it was a disproof of the existence of the American continent to say that it was only discovered by a navigator who was absolutely prepossessed with an almost unreasonably vehement conviction that it was there. And it seems to me that Newman could have given no more conclusive proof of the depth of his faith in the Christian revelation and the divinity of the ecclesiastical system, than the boldness with which he confronted the weak points in the evidence for the miracles, as well of Scripture as of ecclesiastical history, and demonstrated that his reason was as calm and {70} unbiased as his spirit was devout—nay, that in spite of his disposition to expect Divine interpositions wherever he recognized an undoubted indwelling of the Divine presence, he was not disposed to ignore any distinct evidence of exaggeration, confusion, and falsehood in the records of these alleged interpositions.

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Notes

1. Two Essays on Scripture Miracles and on Ecclesiastical, by John Henry Newman. Second edition, p. 231.
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2. Two Essays on Scripture Miracles and on Ecclesiastical, by John Henry Newman. Second edition, p. 229.
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3. Two Essays on Scripture Miracles and on Ecclesiastical, by John Henry Newman. Second edition, p. 229, 230.
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4. Two Essays on Scripture Miracles and on Ecclesiastical, Second edition, pp. 183-4.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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