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Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion
Humanities & Social Sciences papers
  • Peter Harrison, Bond University
Date of this Version
Document Type
Journal Article
Publication Details

This Article is published in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture

Harrison, Peter (2006) Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion, Church History 75 (3) pp. 493-511

© 2006 American Society of Church History. All Rights Reserved.
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[Introduction]: Readers of the New Testament could be excused for thinking that there is little consistency in the manner in which miracles are represented in the Gospels. Those events typically identified as miracles are variously described as "signs" (semeia), "wonders" (terata), "mighty works" (dunameis), and, on occasion, simply "works" (erga). (1) The absence of a distinct terminology for the miraculous suggests that the authors of the Gospels were not working with a formal conception of "miracle" - at least not in that Humean sense of a "contravention of the laws of nature," familiar to modern readers. (2) Neither is there a consistent position on the evidentiary role of these events. In the synoptic Gospels -Matthew, Mark, and Luke - Jesus performs miracles on account of the faith of his audience. In John's Gospel, however, it is the performance of miracles that elicits faith. (3) Even in the fourth Gospel, moreover, the role of miracles as signs of Christ's divinity is not straightforward. Thus those who demand a miracle are castigated: "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." (4) Finally, signs and wonders do not provide unambiguous evidence of the sanctity of the miracle worker or of the truth of their teachings. Accordingly, the faithful were warned (in the synoptic Gospels at least) that "false Christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders [in order] to deceive." (5) The subsequent history of "miracle" saw the formalization of the rather imprecise first-century terms "signs," "wonders," "works," and their evolution into the more exact medieval categories "marvels," "portents," "preternatural" events, and "miracles." This was followed by the eventual emergence in the early modern period of a simple dichotomy between the natural and supernatural along with the familiar notion of miracles as violations of the laws of nature. These different ways of conceptualizing exceptions to nature's normal course are of central importance to historians both of science and of Christianity: the former, because of the intimate connection between the idea of miracle and the idea of a law of nature; the latter because of the miracle narratives of Scripture and the role assumed by miracles in the justification of doctrinal claims. In both spheres, moreover, the issues of evidence and the reliability of testimony are central. In this paper I shall set out three claims relating to the role of the miraculous in the histories of early modern science and religion. The first of these is that in the early modern period we witness a clear shift in the religious function of miracles, from which time they gradually cease to be understood within the context of faith and increasingly play a primary role in the rational justification of religious beliefs. To put it another way, the tension that we encounter in the canonical Gospels is resolved in favor of something that more closely approximates the Johannine than the synoptic position. Second, this shift reinforces a new conception of religion as having less to do with membership of the Church, with inner virtue, or with specific ritual practices, and more to do with subscription to a set of rationally justifiable propositions. The truth of religion, now understood primarily in propositional terms, is something that (in principle at least) can be tested in a neutral, objective sphere. Such tests were necessitated by the competing truth claims of the various new "religions," propositionally conceived. Third, science, or more correctly "natural philosophy," in at least some of its early modern forms, came to play an important role in the adjudication of rival religious claims. Natural philosophers, by virtue of their familiarity with the ordinary course of nature, could claim expertise in the identification of exceptions to that normal course. In addition, experimental philosophers had experience in judging the reliability of testimony to singular events. Natural philosophers could thus argue for the religious significance of their activities, inasmuch as they now performed these crucial adjudicatory functions in the context of this new understanding of true religion as a body of doctrines with objective and rationally justifiable foundations. (6) These transitions gave rise to a formal discourse about miracles that was somewhat removed from popular religious experience - a situation that reflects discussions of the miraculous that now routinely take place in the disciplinary context of the philosophy of religion, and which hinge upon issues of evidence and the status of laws of nature.
Citation Information
Peter Harrison. "Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion" (2006)
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