THE Latin word miraculum means something wonderful not necessarily supernatural, for, e. g. the "Seven Wonders of the World" were known as the "Septem Miracula." In theological Latin, however, and in English the words miraculum, " miracle." are used commonly only of events so wonderful that they cannot be accounted for by natural causes. This use, as we shall see presently, is not sanctioned by the Vulgate translation Of the New Testament, and is not thoroughly supported by the language of the original Greek. It has its disadvantages as well as its advantages, though, of course, the established terminology cannot be altered now, even if it were possible as we believe it is not to find a more convenient word. It will be well however, to say something on the Scriptural and particularly the New Testament phraseology.
(1) Miracles are called terata (prodigia. See Exod. iv. 21, where it is the rendering of * * * , shining or splendid deeds) i. e. prodigies because of the surprise they cause. The Greek word thaumasia, which would exactly answer to miracula, is found in the New Testament once only (thauma,1 never), Matt. xxi. 15; and there in a wider sense than "miracle." There is no great difference, from a theological point of view, between the words "prodigy" and "miracle." It is, however well worth notice that the New Testament never uses the word "prodigy" by itself. It speaks of "signs and prodigies," etc., many times; of "prodigies" simply, never. Evidently, the wonder caused is not the only or even the chief feature in a miracle, and this the New Testament writers are careful to note.
(2) Miracles are also frequently called "signs" (semeia; an accurate rendering of * * *, Ex. vii. 3), to indicate their purpose. They are "marvels" and "prodigies" which arouse attention, but the "wonder" excited is a means, and not an end, and the "miracle" is a token of God's presence; they confirm the mission and the teaching of those who deliver a message in his name (see Acts xiv. 3, Heb. ii. 4). Of course, it is only by usage that the word "sign" acquires this technical sense, and it does not always in the New Testament mean a supernatural sign.
(3) They are often described as "powers" (dunameis), inasmuch as they exhibit God's power. They are evidences that new powers have entered our world and are working thus for the good of mankind. God, no doubt, is always working, and He manifests his power in the operation of natural law. But we are in danger of looking upon the world as if it were governed by laws independent of God, and of forgetting that his hand is as necessary in each moment of the world's existence for each operation of created things as it was for creation at the first. In a miracle, God produces sensible effects which transcend the operation of natural causes. Men are no longer able to say, "This is Nature," forgetting all the while that Nature is the continuous work of God; and they confess, "The finger of God is here." In Christ, miracles were the "powers," or works of power done by Him who was Himself the power of God. And so, miracles done through the saints flow from, and are signs of, the power of God within them. "Stephen, full of grace and power, did great prodigies and signs among the people." (Acts vi. 8).
(4) Christ's miracles are often called his "works," as if the form of working to be looked for from Him in whom the "fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily." They were the characteristic works of Him who came to free us from the bondage of Nature, to be our life, to overcome death, to lead us first to a worthier and more unselfish life, and then to a better world in which sorrow and death shall be no more. They are the firstfruits of his power; the pledges of that mighty working by which, one day, He will subject all things to himself and make all things new.
From a different point of view, then, the same event is a "prodigy," a "sign," and a "power;" each word presenting it under a distinct and instructive aspect. The three words occur three times togetherviz. in Acts ii. 22; 2Cor. xii. 12; 2Thess. ii. 9 (in the last passage of the false miracles of Antichrist). In each case the Vulgate has kept the distinction with accurate and delicate fidelity; and we cannot help expressing our regret that the Douay version, in Challoner's recension, should have obliterated the distinction and blunted the sense of Scripture by translating e. g. Acts ii. 22 "by miracles and wonder. and signs," as "wonder" added anything to "miracle."
We cannot pretend to consider here, in full, the objections made to the possibility of miracles, but can only give in brief the teaching of Catholic theologians, and particularly of St. Thomas, on the matter. The latter defines a miracle as an effect which "is beyond the order (or laws) of the whole of created nature" "ordinem totius naturae creatae" (I. cx 4). He explains further, that an event may transcend the laws of some particular nature and yet by no means be miraculous. The motion of a stone when thrown up in the air, to take his own instance, is an effect. which exceeds the power which resides in the nature of the stone; but it is no miracle, for it is produced by the natural power of man, and does not therefore exceed the power of Nature in its entirety. No natural law can account for the sun's going back on the dial of Achaz, for the resurrection of Lazarus, or for the cure by Christ of Peter's wife's mother when she was sick of a fever. All these things exceeded the powers of Nature, though in different degrees, and they are instances of the three grades of the miraculous which St. Thomas distinguishes (I. cv. 8). In the first case the very substance of the thing done is beyond the power of Nature to effect ("excedit facultatem naturae, quantum ad substantiam facti"); in the second the recipient of the effect stamps it as miraculous ("excedit facultatem naturae, quantum ad id in quo fit"), since natural powers can indeed give life, but not to the dead; in the third, it is the manner and order in which the effect is produced ("modus et ordo faciendi") that is miraculous, for the instantaneous cure of disease by Christ's word is very different from a cure effected by the gradual operation of care and medical treatment. The latter is natural, the former supernatural.
The definition given makes it unreasonable to deny the possibility of miracles, unless we also deny the existence of God. Usually, He works according to natural laws, and this for our good, since we should be unable to control natural agents and to make them serve us, unless we could count on the effects known causes will produce. But God is necessarily free; He is not subject to natural laws, and He may, for wise reasons, make created things the instruments of effects which are beyond their natural capacity. A miracle is not an effect without a cause; on the contrary, it is a miracle because produced by God, the First Cause. It is not a capricious exercise of power. The same God who operates usually for wise ends, according to the laws which He has implanted in Nature, may on occasion, and for ends equally wise, produce effects which transcend these laws. Nor does God in working miracles contradict Himself, for where has He bound himself never and for no reason to operate except according to these laws?
It is also clear from the definition given that God alone can work miracles. "Whatever an angel or any other creature does by his own power is according to the order of created nature," and therefore not miraculous according to the definition with which we started (I. cx. 4). It is quite permissible to speak of saints or angels as working miracles; indeed, Scripture itself does so speak. Still, we must always understand that God alone really performs the wonder, and that the creature is merely his instrument. Hence it follows that no miracle can possibly be wrought except for a good purpose. It does not, however, follow that persons through whose instrumentality miracles occur are good and holy. St. Thomas, quoting St. Jerome, holds that evil men who preach the faith and call on Christ's name may perform true miracles, the object of these miracles being to confirm the truths which these unworthy persons utter and the cause which they represent.2 Thus the gift of miracles is in itself no proof of holiness. But, as a rule, miracles are effected by holy men and women, and very often they are the signs by which God attests their sanctity and the power of their prayer (2 2ndae clxxviii. 2). In all these cases, the miracle is a sign of God's will, and cannot, except through our own perversity, lead us into error.
It is otherwise with the "lying wonders" which, St Paul says, Antichrist will work, or which Pharaoh's magicians are supposed by some to have done by the help of devils. Real miracles these cannot be, for God, who is the very truth, cannot work wonders to lead his creatures into error. But the demons, according to St. Thomas, are so far beyond us in knowledge and strength, that they may well work marvels, which would exceed all natural powers, so far as we know them, and would seem to us superior to any natural power whatsoever, and so to be truly miraculous (I. cxiv.). True miracles, then, are practically distinguished from false ones by their moral character. They are not mere marvels, meant to gratify the curiosity of the spectator and the vanity of the performer. They are signs of God's presence; they bring us nearer to Him with whom "we ever have to do;" they remind us that we are to be holy as He is holy, to cultivate humility, purity, the love of God and man. The doctrine which they confirm must appeal to us, apart from its miraculous attestation. "Jesus answered them and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his who sent me. If any man will do his will, he will know of the doctrine whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself. He who speaketh of himself, seeketh his own glory, but he that seeketh the glory of Him that sent him, he is true, and injustice is not in him" (John vii. 16). So our Lord appeals, in answering John's disciples, to his miracles, not simply as works of power, but as stamped with a moral character, and in their connection with the rest of his work. "Blind see again and lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and deaf hear, and corpses are raised, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them; and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me" (Matt. xi. 5 seq.). In short, there was a witness within, as well as without, to Christ's mission, and the miracles had no voice for those who were deaf to the voice within. Because they were deaf to this voice within, the Pharisees ascribed Christ's miracles to Beelzebub. They blasphemed, or were in danger of blaspheming, the Holy Ghost who spoke to their hearts. And precisely the same danger which made men reject Christ's miracles will make them accept the marvels of Antichrist.
So far, many Protestants are with us; but whereas most of them consider that miracles ceased with, or soon after, the Apostolic age, the Catholic Church, not, indeed, so far as we know, by any formal definition, but by her constant practice in the canonization of saints, and through the teaching of her theologians, declares that the gift of miracles is an abiding one, manifested from time to time in her midst. This belief is logical and consistent. Miracles are as possible now as they were eighteen centuries ago. They were wrought throughout the course of the old dispensation, and by the Apostles after Christ's death; and although miracles, no doubt, were specially needed, and therefore more numerous, when Christianity was a new religion, we have no right to dictate to the Allwise; and maintain that they have ceased to be required at all. Heathen nations have still to be converted. Great saints are raised up in different ages to renew the fervor of Christians and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. The only reasonable course is to examine the evidence for modern miracles, when it presents itself, and to give or withhold belief accordingly. This is just what the Church does. The Anglican Bishop Fitzgerald, at the end of a most thoughtful and useful essay on "Miracles" in Smith's "Bible Dictionary," asserts that according to the confession of their ablest advocates, ecclesiastical miracles belong to the class "of miracles which may be described as ambiguous and tentative i. e. the event, if it occurred at all, may have been the result of natural causes." Then, indeed, the question would be at an end. But any one who looks into Benedict XIV.'s treatise on "Canonization," or into Cardinal Newman's "Lectures on Anglican Difficulties," will see what an extraordinary mistake this is. This able writer is wasting words and exposing the weakness of his own cause when he argues that the course of Nature cannot be interrupted "by random and capricious variation," that strong evidence is needed to make supposed miracles credible, and that the true miracles of Christianity at its birth may have occasioned spurious imitations of fanatical credulity. All this may be admitted, but it does not touch the question. And when Dr. Fitzgerald rests the belief in miracles upon the authority of inspired writers, and urges that there is no such authority for ecclesiastical miracles, he forgets that the first Christians must have believed the miracles of Christ and the Apostles before any inspired record of them had been made. In many cases, too, the belief in Apostolic miracles must have come first, that in Apostolic inspiration, second.
It must be observed, however, that ecclesiastical and Scriptural miracles claim widely different kinds of belief The Scriptural miracles rest on divine faith, and must be accepted without doubt. No ecclesiastical miracle can become the object of faith, nor is any Catholic bound to believe in any particular miracle not recorded in Scripture. He could not, without unsoundness in doctrine, deny that any miracles had occurred since the Apostolic age, and he owes a filial respect to the judgment of high ecclesiastical authority; but within these limits he is left to the freedom and to the responsibilities of private judgment.
Lastly, although there is a danger in incredulity, even when this incredulity does not amount to abandonment of the faith, Catholic saints and doctors have insisted on the opposite danger of credulity. To attribute false miracles, says St. Peter Damian, to God or his saints, is to bear false witness against them; and he reminds those who estimate sanctify by miraculous power that nothing is read of miracles done by the Blessed Virgin or St. John Baptist, eminent as they were in sanctity, and that the virtues of the saints which we can copy are more useful than miracles which excite our wonder (Fleury, "H.E."lxi.2).Neander ("Kirchen-geschichte," viii. p. 26 seq.), after speaking of the popular taste for legendary miracles in the middle ages, continues: "Men were not wanting to contend against this spirit, and a catena of testimonies may be produced from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the true significance of the miraculous in relation to the divine life, and against an exaggerated estimation of external miracles. Nor were such thoughts peculiar to enlightened men who rose above their age; they may be taken as an expression of the common Christian feeling in those centuries." The medieval biographer of Bernard of Tiron says that for the conversions of fallen women which he effected through God's grace was more to be admired than if he had raised their dead bodies to life. And the biographer of St. Norbert writes: "It is the visible miracles which astonish the simple and ignorant, but it is the patience and virtues of the saints which are to be admired and imitated by those who gird themselves to Christ's service." (See the references in Neander, loc. cdl.)
(On the subject of miracles generally Archbishop Trench's dissertation at the beginning of his "Essays on the Miracles" may be consulted. It is specially valuable for its Patristic references. The opinions of the Schoolmen on the nature of miracles are well given by Neander, vol. viii p. 26 of the last German edition. Cardinal Newman's "Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles" is well known.)
1 Never. i e. for a "wonderful thing." See Apoc. xvii. 7.
2 Sylvius, one of the best known commentators on St. Thomas. holds that heretics may Work miracles: not. however. in confirmation of their heresy.
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