Blame Hume: About a Sermon


“As Charles Sanders Peirce notes (Peirce 1958: 293), the Humean in-principle argument has left an indelible impression on modern biblical scholarship. Humean considerations are expressly invoked in the work of the great German critic David Friedrich Strauss (1879: 199–200), transformed into one of the “presuppositions of critical history” in the work of the philosopher F. H. Bradley (1874/1935), rechristened as the “principle of analogy” in the writings of the theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1913), and endorsed, explicitly or implicitly, in many contemporary studies of the historical Jesus (Dawes 2001: 97–106) and the New Testament (Ehrman 2003: 228–30). Commitment to something like Hume’s position lies on one side of a deep conceptual fault line that runs through the discipline of biblical studies.”

The passage above comes from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Miracles, in the section ‘The impact of Hume’s “Of Miracles”.’ It sums up nicely the currently dominant dogma of biblical studies.
As the above passage points out, biblical criticism over the past 150 or more years has been predicated on a particular philosophical viewpoint. That viewpoint is very closely allied to what has come to be known as scientific materialism. In this view, all of nature, and all of existence, is a law unto itself. Everything in the universe behaves in a consistent way, such that its regularities can be abstracted as general laws which it is impossible, by definition, to violate. This philosophy has developed its own creation story: for living things, evolution from a single ancestor; for the universe itself, self-creation according to the (apparently pre-existing) laws of quantum physics.
No notion of “spirit” is required in this scenario. God, therefore, is either non-existent or completely detached and irrelevant, like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. For atheists, this is a congenial view, despite its plethora of intractable problems, not least the “problem” of conscious self-awareness. But, as Newman said, a thousand difficulties do not make a doubt.
However, for a believer in that Trinity of creative spiritual intelligences Christians call God, this position is untenable. It will not do to adopt an Aristotelian model, because there is no interaction between God and His creation, and certainly no interaction with us. Any interaction with human beings by God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit is, by the skeptical definition, a miracle. It occurs outside the closed circle of nature and natural law. And that is not to mention the divine human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Any communication between God and us breaches this quarantine, as does any influence of God upon us. Prayer is reduced to one-way mediation, and any change we notice within ourselves is entirely our own doing.
Hume’s view can be applied directly to both Testaments, but is often applied in a way which disguises its flagrancy. Take the first miracle of the loaves & fishes. Like all of the miracles, this event is a vital part of the gradual revealing of Jesus’ identity. It establishes Him as a greater prophet than Elisha, and thus its meaning depends on the knowledge that Elisha fed the hundred men with twenty barley loaves, “and had some left over.”
The first step is to de-legitimise the books of Kings. Unlike the Gospels and other works of the New Testament, the books of Samuel and Kings, although based on earlier documents mentioned in Chronicles, are histories written many generations after the events depicted; possibly by Ezra himself. Now, although the underlying rationale is that of Hume, the stories of Elijah and Elisha can be treated as “legendary”; as stories invented about revered prophets, long after their deaths.
Something glossed over here is that, because these books purport to be a true history of Judah and Israel, the deliberate inclusion of material known to be, or even suspected of being, legendary, is not a mere example of poetic licence, but a lie. Because of his remoteness from the events, the writer of Kings can be excused on the grounds that, steeped in ancient ignorance, he knew no better. The modern Christian or Jew, however, can use no such excuse.
With this understanding established, we proceed to the Gospels. If Elisha did not perform his miracle, what is the point of Jesus’ reproducing it, raised by orders of magnitude? The only point is that Jesus’ contemporaries believed that the miracle had occurred. So, did Jesus perform this miracle for the benefit of these deluded contemporaries? A more Humean approach is to say that Jesus is innocent of such claims. After His death, the nascent Church, anxious to demonstrate that Jesus was greater than all of the prophets, created this legend. Legend begets legend.
But where does that leave the Gospel authors? The New Testament was written by contemporaries of Jesus. They cannot claim to have pored over records already centuries old as they compiled their documents. They would have been able to confirm the truth or otherwise of this story with the purported witnesses. If it is not true, the Gospels are written by liars, and are full of lies. Everything we think we know about Jesus is either utterly unreliable or a downright lie.
Another “critical” approach I have heard to this story goes as follows. There was no miraculous multiplying of the loaves and fishes. The miracle was that by His open-heartedness in offering the little that He and the disciples had for the benefit of everyone, the multitude within the multitude who had brought more than enough food for themselves were shamed into sharing it. The earnest silliness of this interpretation shows the extent to which one’s critical reason can be suppressed in order to protect one’s faith in the completeness and independence of the physical creation.

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