Appeared in Summer 2001, Vol. XXVI, No. 2 Download PDF here

“Miracles have ceased,” wrote Charles Kingsley to a friend in 1859; he continued,

“I said to myself then perhaps too much after the fashion of a German critic, I will not believe that the man who wrote the chapters in Austin’s City of God, ever wrote the passages critics attribute to him. I know from reason that passage to be a direct lie. I will not believe Augustine ever told one…. I will not believe it.”

For the purposes of this paper it might be useful to state Kingsley’s argument. Miracles had ceased. Any report of a miracle must therefore be a lie. Augustine never told a lie, so he did not write the passages which contain accounts of miracles.

Most of Kingsley’s contemporaries would have agreed with his judgment, except for the comment on the unspecified “German critic.” Since the sixteenth century, Protestant apologists had generally agreed that miracles had come to an end by the fourth century, with the establishment of Christianity. Reports of later miracles were to be explained by natural causes that were not understood at the time of their occurrence, or as the result of papist lies and fabrications. In the English commentary on miracles, especially in the eighteenth century, the concern was to preserve the credibility of scriptural miracles at the expense of patristic and hagiographic miracles. Tests such as the following were proposed for alleged miracles: was the miracle necessary? Would the evidence brought forward on its behalf stand a close, legal examination? Was the report of the miracle written immediately after the event and in a clear, consistent manner?3 Gibbon contributed to the Anglican case against miracles by noting that none of the saints and Fathers, while often describing the miracles of their friends, ever mentioned any of his own.4

The case against post-scriptural miracles was eventually turned against those of Scripture. Such supernatural wonders were unnecessary to the true or “practical” Christian.5 One of Newman’s early mentors, Richard Whately, attempted to check the growing skepticism by arguing that the life of Napoleon was more difficult to believe than the life of Christ. The English and French versions of Napoleon’s life were so wildly contradictory as to cast suspicion on their authors. Both versions sounded like epic poetry in praise of their respective countries, and were founded on highly suspicious evidence, if not outright lies. In contrast, the direct and consistent accounts of the life of Christ were easy to accept.6

Whately’s argument did not prevail. Almost all of the Victorian “lives” of Christ played down or ignored the miracles in the Gospels.7 By 1860, one of the contributors to the essays and reviews could safely urge that the miracles of scripture were no longer an evidence for revelation, but an object of faith in themselves. Miracles had become an “open question” in the Church of England, to be accepted or not according to one’s personal disposition.8 On what might be called the secular side of the debate, John Stuart Mill and a host of others argued that if a law of nature were really a law, it could not be violated.9 Matthew Arnold, Newman’s alleged disciple, put the matter more directly: “Miracles do not happen.”10

It was in this climate of skepticism that Newman wrote his extensive commentaries on the subject of miracles. his career as a writer, in fact, began and ended with acommentary on miracles, and his definition of what hemeant by a miracle did not change in the long interval (1828-1880) which separates his writings on the subject. Here is his definition from his first Essay on Miracles (here- after Essay I):

A miracle may be considered as an event inconsistent with the constitution of nature, that is, with the established course of things in which it is found. Or again, an event in a given system which cannot be referred to any law, or accounted for by the operation of any principle in that system. It does not necessarily imply a violation of nature, as some have supposed, -merely the interposition of an external cause, which we shall hereafter show, can be no other than the agency of the deity.11

In one of his last essays -actually an “address”- Newman described the character of miracles: “[E]ven when it is his will to act miraculously, even when he outstrips his ordinary system, he is wont to honour it even while overstepping it.”12 In a conversation with a friend, Newman described what he meant by an “ordinary” miracle:

I take this paper-knife, & push the inkstand with it. Here is distinctly, through the action of my free will, an interference with the laws of nature. If these laws were left to themselves, the knife would remain still and the ink stand unmoved…. Now, surely, it is little to grant that if there be a God, he can do what I can do; and yet, so far as we know, a miracle amounts to no more than this.13

In various places throughout his Philosophical Notebooks, Newman reverted to this definition of a miracle.14 Prodigies such as raising someone from the dead were not thereby excluded, but they did represent a break from the usual style of miracles.

The events recorded in the Old and New testaments could not be explained by purely natural causes, and the advance of science had not, according to Newman, diminished their unique quality. Some miracles, such as the calming of the waters, which produced an immediate effect on those who witnessed it, had diminished in appeal with the passage of time, while others had grown in their appeal. The stronger miracles supported the weaker or less appealing, but as far as the miracles of scripture were concerned, it was a matter of all or nothing. to call one into question was to raise doubts about all of the rest (I, 25 ff.).

The method used for the investigation of miracles was the same as that used by historians in general to investigate facts, with one vital exception. A miracle required the testimony of an eyewitness whose integrity was above suspicion. The witness must also be a person of intelligence, even if lacking in formal education; it did not require a medical degree to know that a person was very sick or dead and that such a person had recovered. One known for exaggeration or “besotted credulity” had an insurmountable case against his report being accepted. There could be no hope, moreover, of personal reward (monetary, prestige, etc.) in gaining acceptance in the report. The miracles of the Old and New testament met these criteria, so much so that if they were not allowed, all historical evidence was suspect. At the same time, a miracle was no proof to one who was on principle an atheist and would not allow the existence of a cause sufficient to suspend or interrupt the natural law (I, 13 ff.).

It was otherwise with a Christian. For one who believed in a creator, a miracle was neither impossible nor improbable. The existence of a creator argued the need for a revelation, and the character of scriptural miracles, including what Newman called “miracles of wrath,” confirmed what could be known about the attributes of God without the aid of a revelation. In Essay I, Newman was concerned to answer Hume’s objection that a miracle violated what was known about God through the created world. Newman responded by observing that the world was divided into a physical and a moral system. As a rule, the two systems worked in harmony, but on occasion, as in the case of a miracle, the moral system was confirmed “at the expense of physical regularity.” In both essays, as well as in his other comments on miracles, Newman honored Hume’s observation that it was more likely that a person should lie that that the order of nature be reversed. Still, the existence of a power sufficient to interrupt the laws of nature, especially for a moral purpose, meant that miracles were not only possible but probable (I, 16 ff.).

The moral system which Hume acknowledged also provided a kind of test for the alleged miracle. Miracles of show, or mere demonstrations of power, as well as miracles for a bad purpose, could be eliminated from the canon of miracles because they did not illustrate orconfirm that moral system (I, 17-18).

Throughout Essay I, Newman cast aspersions on what he was to later call ecclesiastical miracles. The miracles recorded in hagiographic and patristic sources usually lacked the dignity of scriptural miracles. In addition, the texts which contained the report were often ambiguous, unlike the clear and consistent style of scripture. Those who worked the miracle or miracles seemed uncertain of their ability to do so. Indeed, many of the post-Apostolic miracles occurred after the death of the saint and were apparently worked through the agency of some form of “prop” such as a relic. The later miracles were also circumscribed in a particular place, such as a shrine, and often occurred in a superstitious community (I, 59 ff.).

The greatest objection, however, to post-Apostolic miracles is that they were unnecessary. Newman went so far as to describe the expectation of later miracles as “sinful.”15 With the establishment of Christianity, a revelation had been given that was complete in itself and needed no further validation:

Popish miracles, as has often been observed, occur in Popish countries, where they are least wanted;whereas, if real, they would be invaluable among Protestants. Hence the primitive Miracles become suspicious, in proportion as we find Christianity established, not only from the increasing facility of fraud, but moreover from the apparent needlessness of the extraordinary display (I, 66).

Newman’s change of mind on the later miracles may have come about through his research on what came to be the Arians of the Fourth Century, published several months before the start of the Oxford Movement. The Arians has no discussion of miracles, but almost all of the sources Newman consulted to write the work do. Each of the miracles evaluated at the conclusion to Essay II is taken from the third and fourth centuries. In the fifteen years (1828 – 1843) that separate the two essays, and probably much sooner, Newman discovered that the subject of miracles was inseparable from the study of Church History. Miracles were the defining characteristic of sacred history; to write that history without mention of miracles was like writing the history of a kingdom without mentioning its monarch. It was the ubiquitousquality of miracles which defined the problem. Kingsley’s dilemma with St. Augustine (with which this essay opened) was as nothing compared to the problem raised by all of the earliest Church historians, the saints and Fathers (and many classical historians; this latter group responded to the question by accusing the church of using magic).

In Essay I, Newman defended the miracles of scripture as integral to the texts in which they appeared. To eliminate them, as was attempted in the nineteenth century, was to destroy the text.16 Further, it was highly improbable that so many miraculous events, the accounts of which appeared in the same work, should have been the result of some conspiracy by the authors, or that those who claimed to have witnessed the events they described were the victims of self-delusion or enthusiasm. Men who were willing to give up everything for the sake of what they believed required the very strongest form of evidence.

But the above arguments in favor of scriptural miracles could be, in many instances, used to support Church miracles. If the miracles of scripture were inseparable from the text, so it was with the fabric of ecclesiastical history. To go through century after century of Church history and deny or explain away the miracles in that history was to deny the existence of an indwelling spirit in the Church. But as belief in God was essential to a belief in miracles, so belief in the existence of a Church was essential to a belief in the continuation of miracles. Thus, Newman wrote to a friend about the time he was composing Essay II:

Now Church history is made up of these three elements-miracles, monkery, Popery. If any sympathetic feeling is expressed on behalf of the persons and events of Church history, it is a feeling in favor of miracles, or monkery, or Popery, one or all. It is quite a theory to talk of being ethical, yet not concur in these elements of the narrative unless indeed, one adopts Milner’s or Neander’s device of dropping part of the history, praising what one has a fancy for and thus putting a theory and a dream in the place of facts. But it is bad enough to be eclectic in doctrine. . . . take missions, take Bishops, the Pope comes in everywhere. Go to Aldheim and his schools, you have most strange miracles. Try to retire into the country, you do but meet with hermits. No; miracles,monkery, Popery are too much for you.17

Was it possible that all of the miracles reported in the history of the Church were nothing more than Popish lies? A few years later, Newman wrote that Protestants despaired of history, for the very reasons that the above-quoted paragraph intimates.

Other reasons may be given to explain the dramatic change in Newman’s thinking on this subject. Partof his defense of scriptural miracles derived from their usually solemn and dignified character, but the exceptions to that general description may be said to have anticipated those that were to found in Church history. Quoting an example from the Book of Kings, Newman observed in Essay II:

These wonderful acts are strung together as the direct and formal subjects of the chapter in which they occur…. at length Elisha falls sick, and, on the king’s visiting him, promises him a series of victories over the Syrians; then he dies and is buried, and by accident a corpse is thrown into his grove; and when the man was let down, and touched the bonds of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. Surely, it is not too much to say that after this inspired precedent, there is little in ecclesiastical legends to offend us as regards their matter;their credibility turning first on whether they are to be expected at all, and next whether they are avouched on sufficient evidence (II, 168).

So it was with other miracles in the Old Testament. But the greatest trial to the imagination was the Incarnation itself

[I]f we could only go so far as to realize what Christianity is, when considered merely as a creed, and what stupendous overpowering facts are involved in the doctrine of a divine Incarnation, we shall find that no miracle can be great after it, nothing strange or marvelous, nothing beyond expectations (II, 185).

The great problem with miracles, once their possibility was allowed, was the extreme difficulty with which they were realized, or brought home to the imagination.18

Yet nature itself may be said to have provided an analogy to the more exotic instances of miracles that were to be found in the post-apostolic narratives. To one used only to the somber landscape and animal life of Great Britain, the sight of an elephant or giraffe might startle. The existence of such creatures fortified the analogy that Newman used in passim to illustrate the operations of the supernatural and natural world. as a rule, the separate systems acted in harmony, but exceptions could and did occur. Mill’s Logic allowed for no such exceptions,19 but even a believer like John Keble, author of The Christian Year and one of Newman’s closest friends, was disturbed by Newman’s argument. Keble attributed the existence of such exotic animals to evil spirits.20

Newman’s greater concern was to answer the objection that the later miracles were suspicious because they were unnecessary. Citing a number of Anglican sources who had used that argument, Newman observed that such critics were less philosophical in their position than Hume. Hume had invoked experience against all miracles; Anglicans used the argument of probability. The latter argument was weak since believers dare not presume to know the mind of God. Newman also observed that miracles, like other acts and institutions, may have a primary and secondary function. The usual function of scriptural miracles was to prove a revelation; the function of later miracles was to reward or enliven faith (II, 111). As the order inherent in the world of nature was ample proof of a sufficient or first cause, but one that might lose its argumentative force through familiarity, so the later miracles may be said to enliven a faith in the presence of God (II, 111). In addition, scripture provided instances of a confused faith-what Newman had earlier called idolatry 21 -being rewarded.22

Yet the real argument for the continuation of miracles was that what had happened once was more likely to happen again:

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 parallel, for they follow upon Apostolic Miracles, and they are referable to the Apostolic as an All-Sufficient Cause. Whatever be the regularity of and stability of Nature, interference with it can be, because it has been; there is One who both has the power over his own work, and who before now has not been unwilling to exercise it. In this point of view, then, Ecclesiastical Miracles are more advantageously circumstanced than those of Scripture (II, 103).

Such is the argument of Essay II. The later miracles had a philosophical advantage to those of Scripture because they came afterwards and were therefore not improbable. The difficulty with the vast majority of post-apostolic miracles was the testimony or evidence with which they are avouched. As Newman wrote after his conversion:

When you speak of a miracle being credible, you mean one of two things: either that it is ‘antecedently probable,’ or verisimile; or that it is ‘furnished with sufficient evidence.’ Or provable. In which of these senses do you use the word? If you describe me as saying that the ecclesiastical miracles come to us on the same evidence as those of scripture, you attribute to me what I have never dreamt of asserting. If you understand me to say that the ecclesiastical miracles are on the same level of antecedent probability with those of Scripture, you do justice to my meaning; but I do not conceive it as one to raise ‘disgust.”23

The “you” in the above was Bishop Hinds, the Protestant Bishop of Norwich, who had described the later miracles as “disgusting” and like most of his countrymen regarded every mention of such events as proof of Catholic superstition or lying.24

The alternative to the charge of superstition or credulity is the assertion that Newman was at heart a skeptic. According to those who advance this view, Newman was too intelligent to believe in the later miracles, and Essay II is thus to be read as “a manual of skepticism.”25 The argument is that Newman gave up his reason and encouraged others to do the same in the goal of defending all reports of miracles after the Age of the Apostles.26 The problem with this charge is that Essay II, as well as all of Newman’s other writings on the subject, expressly remarks that most of the later miracles are suspect. He quotes various ecclesiastical authorities, including a Pope, who had denounced the “lying miracles” that were to be found throughout ecclesiastical literature. Given Newman’s caution regarding reports of miracles, it is difficult to find justification for the views of those who have argued that he and the Catholic Church encouraged lying on the subject.27

Newman’s views on the account of the death of Arius provide a fair specimen of his method. Of course, the death could be explained by a purely natural cause, such as a stomach disorder. But Gibbon was so moved by its suddenness that he suggested Arius was poisoned by the Christians.28 The place of the miracle, however, told against Gibbon’s version, as well as against Newman’s earlier objection to “Romish” miracles, since it occurred in an Arian territory where Arius was very likely protected by the imperial forces. Further, Newman’s method did not exclude the natural. He expressly wrote that most Church miracles, like those of scripture, were “beyond, rather than against nature” (II, 134). The death occurred after the fervent prayers of holy persons that the Church be saved from the threat of heresy. It was attested to by persons of holiness and intelligence, and interpreted as an instance of God’s providential concern for the Church (II, 327 ff.).

Newman used a similar method in his evaluation of other miracles in the third and fourth centuries of the church. Many might be explained by natural causes, but there was no philosophic or historical objection to a supernatural reading of the same events. His method, with one vital exception, was closely parallel to that of Gibbon. Both used the same sources and employed extensive documentation to make their case. Newman differed from Gibbon, however, in his belief in the possibility of miracles; like many of his Anglican contemporaries, Gibbon denied such a possibility. Indeed, the grievance against Essay II may be that Newman was severe with those who withheld belief until it was no merit to believe.

The objection raised by Gibbon against the scriptural account of the crucifixion-none of the classical historians had mentioned the darkening of the skies- provided an excellent insight into Newman’s method. He responded by observing that the same historians were also silent on other events in the history of Christianity that Gibbon accepted, including the spread of Christianity. The study of any historic topic was fraught with such difficulties. Historians were silent on events that one might have expected them to write about, or wrote about them in places other than the expected text.29 Classical historians, no less than Church historians, were often ambiguous, biased and even contradictory in their accounts. An alleged event was not disproved because it had not been proved, nor can it be said not to have happened because it was unrecorded. Even a false miracle or downright lie did not tell against a true miracle, any more than hypocrisy told against virtue.

As for the ambiguous accounts of miracles, the individual was allowed his own judgment, to accept or not according to the quality of the evidence. Many years later, in a work that has not been censured or condemned like Essay II, Newman wrote:

Doubtless it is abstractedly more likely that men should lie than that the order of nature should be infringed; but what is abstract reasoning to a question of concrete fact? To arrive at the fact of any matter we must eschew generalities and take things as they stand, with all the circumstances. A priori, of course, the acts of men are not so trustworthy as the order of nature, and the pretense of miracles is in fact more common than the occurrence. But the question is not about miracles in general, or even men in general, but definitely whether these particular miracles, ascribed to this particular Peter, James, and John, are more likely to have been or not … 30

The integrity and judgment of a particular “James” or “John” on behalf of the alleged miracles or any other event was to be evaluated before giving credence to the report. Newman’s main argument in Essay II was that there was nothing inherently improbable about what was reported. The great difficulty with all miracles was that they were difficult to imagine since they were socontrary to ordinary human experience.

Those who find the Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles “repellant”31 ought, in consistency, to find almost the whole of Newman’s writings similarly distasteful, for the subject can scarcely be omitted from any discussion of his Catholic writing. Newman wrote so extensively on fraudulent miracles and the superstitions of Catholics that Kingsley could, with a certain justice, write that Newman seemed to consider such scandals as one of the “notes” of the Church.32 Further, throughout all of his works, Newman routinely described even superstition as a moral state superior to the cool rationalism that he observed in the Anglican Church.

In the Apologia, Newman attempted to answer one of Lord Macaulay’s comments on the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Macaulay found the doctrine so repugnant to common sense that even the miracles of Holofernes paled in comparison.33 Newman responded by observing that he accepted the doctrine on becoming a Catholic since he believed in the divine existence of the Church. So it was with miracles. For the most part, the acceptance of individual miracles was left to the judgment of the individual. But given a belief in the divine origins and protection accorded to the Church, his response to Lord Macaulay’s objection is fairly typical of his general defense of Catholic doctrine: “What is to hinder it?”34


1 Charles Kinglsey to William Capes, 1859, Kingsley Collection, Princeton University, Princeton. (Kingsley’s italics).
2 See D. Walker, “The Cessation of Miracles,” in Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, ed. L .Merkul and A. Dubus (Washington: Washington U. Press, 1988), 111-124.

3 See L. Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, ed. C. Brinton, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962), 1 ch. 3, 66 ff; 2 ch. 8, 22-34; also R. Burns, The Great Debate on Miracles (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1981). Newman’s survey of Anglican writers is to be found in Essays on Miracles (London: Pickering, 1870), 231 ff. 82.

5 See E. B. Pusey, History of Rationalism, 2 vols. (London: Rivington, 1828, 1830), 2, ch. 1.

6 See Historic Doubts Relative to the History of Napoleon Bonaparte, ed. R. Pomeroy (Berkeley: Scholar Press, 1985).

7 See D. Pals, The Victorian Lives of Jesus (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1982).

8 R. Baden-Powell, “On the Evidences for Christianity,” Essays and Reviews, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan Co.,1860), 140.

9 See John Stuart Mill, System of Logic (London: Macmillan Co., 1860), Bk. 3, ch. 25, sec. 2.

10 Quoted in W. Ward, Life of Cardinal Newman, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan Co., 1912), 2, 494.

11 Essays on Miracles (London: Pickering, 1870), 1. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text according to essay and page number.

12 “The Conversion of England,” Sayings of Cardinal Newman, ed. W. Neville (Dublin: Carraig Books, 1976), 66.

13 Ward, Life of Cardinal Newman, 2, 494.

14 See Philosophical Notebooks, ed. E. Sillem, 2 vols. (Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1969), ch. 2, sec. 7.

15 Newman’s Sermons, 1824-1843, ed. V. Blehl (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 2, 13.

16 See R. Collingwood, The Idea of History, ed. T. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 240 ff.

17 Correspondence of John Henry Newman with John Keble and others, 1839-1843, ed. Fathers at the Birmingham Oratory (London: Burns and Oates, 1917), 282-283.

18 See The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty, ed. H. de Achavel and J. Holmes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 76: “Imagination is distinct from reason, but mistaken for it. What is strange, is to the imagination false. It tends to doubt whatever is strange. Experience is the measure of truth to imagination.” Imagination is the basis of Hume’s argument against miracles: “Imagination, not reason is the great enemy to faith…”

19 See Philosophical Notebooks, 2, esp. 46-47; see also Theological Papers, 39-63.

20 John Keble to Newman in Correspondence of John Henry Newman, 343.

21 Newman’s Sermons, 59.
22 See Difficulties Felt by Anglicans, 2 vols. (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1969), 1, 286-290.
23 Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. C. S. Dessain (london: Nelson and Sons, 1962), 14, 384-5.

24 E. A. Abbot, Philomythus (London: Macmillan Co., 1891); for a recent judgment on Newman’s superstition and/or lapse in sanity, see R. Pattison, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 176, n. 69: “This [sudden death of Arius] was written by a forty-one year old man supposedly in full possession of his senses.”

25 H. Bremond, The Mystery of Newman, tr. H. Corrance (London: Williams and Torrance, 1907), 107.

26 J. A. Froude, The Nemesis of Faith (reprint ed., Hants, Great Britain: Pilgrim Books, 1969), 157: “Newman talked to us of the surrender of reason. Reason, first of everything, must be swept away, so daily more and more unreasonable appeared to modem eyes so many of the doctrines to which the church was committed.”

27 See “Ecclesiastical Miracles,” North British Review, 4 (1846): 451-86.

28 Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1, 692 ff.

29 Newman’s discussion is found in the Idea of a University, ed. C. Harrold (New York: Longman’s, 1947), 84; for a discussion of the problems faced by the historian, see J. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, ed. Harrold (New York: Longman’s, 1949), 103; see also, J. Griffin, An Historical Commentary on the Major Catholic Works of Cardinal Newman (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), chs. 1, 8.

30 Grammar of Assent, ed. Ian Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 198-99.

31 O. Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1960), 29.

32 “What then does Dr. Newman Mean?” in J. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ed. A. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1950), 417.

33 “Von Ranke’s History of the Popes,” Critical and Historical Essays, 2 vols. (New York: Everyman, ed., 1963), 2, 42.
34 Apologia, 238.