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The argument which they have chosen for this purpose has indeed a formidable appearance, and at first sight may seem to be unanswerable. It is no less than the natural incredibility of the facts attested; and what possible force of human testimony can persuade us of a thing which is in itself incredible ? “The present question,” says Dr Middleton, “ concerning the miraculous powers of the primitive Church, depends on the joint credibility of the facts pretended to have been produced by these powers, and of the witnesses who attest them. If either part be infirm, their credit must sink in proportion ; and, if the facts especially be incredible, must of course fall to the ground; because no force of testimony can alter the nature of things.”—Pref., p. x.
Mr Brook readily agrees to this assertion, adopts it as a first principle in the present question, and, whilst he admits and defends the invincible force of testimony in commanding our assent even to miracles, he makes this the single exception : “Our belief,” says he, “of past matters of fact, whether ordinary or extraordinary, against which there lies no reasonable exception from the nature of things, rests entirely upon testimony.” And a little after, “Whatever evidence,” says he, “is fair and reasonable in common historical facts, will likewise be fair and reasonable in facts of an extraordinary and miraculous kind, if the nature and circumstances of these facts are such as not to render them liable to any material objection.”—Brook's Examin., chap. iv.
It is upon this ground, as we have seen above, that Dr Middleton rejects all miracles whatever that rest only upon human testimony, and admits none but those contained in the Word of God ; and it is upon this ground precisely that the Doctor's adversaries reject all miracles recorded to have happened after the respective periods which they are pleased to assign for the duration of miracles in the Church. Their whole reasoning is reduced to these two points, that the miracles recorded before the time assigned by them for their cessation, were by no means incredible or improbable; and this they endeavour to show against Dr Middleton in defence of Christianity; but that all miracles said to have happened after the period which they fix, were absolutely incredible, and therefore not to be believed, however supported by human testimony; and this they maintain against Catholics.
Mr Brook is particularly earnest in displaying this argument, and has collected all that can be said in defence of it. It is necessary, therefore, to examine him attentively, in order to see the real worth of this boasted argument, upon which the issue of this important question in a great measure depends. For if it is found to be of sterling value, and the miracles of after ages are shown to be absolutely incredible, Catholics must give up the cause, and yield the victory to their adversaries; but if it can be proved absolutely inconsistent both with common sense and Christianity, then the perpetual duration of the miraculous powers in the Catholic Church will shine forth in full lustre, and the authority of the testimony on which it is supported must command our ready acquiescence.
II. The first thing to be remarked in this argument from the incredibility of the facts attested, is that it proceeds upon a supposition contradicted by common sense, and which is in itself a palpable absurdity. Here the precise point in question is this, “Whether or not a fact absolutely incredible in itself can possibly be believed, when attested by witnesses who are acknowledged to be competent judges of the truth, and people of known probity and integrity; and when their testimony is attended with those corroborating circumstances which carry with them the highest conviction?" Dr Middleton readily answers, that the credit of such a fact, however attested, must fall to the gronnd, for this plain reason, “Because no force of testimony can alter the nature of things ;' in which he evidently shows, that by the incredibility of a fact he understands its impossibility; and indeed common sense shows that in the whole question “incredible” and “impossible” are synonymous terms; for if the fact fully attested, as above, be a possible fact, then it would be ridiculous to say it was incredible. You may call it “surprising, astonishing, extraordinary,” or what you please, but you can never call it “incredible ;” for no fact, possible in itself, can be incredible, when its existence is actually proved by the fullest evidence which the nature of the thing can bear, and is supposed to be the work of omnipotence. If the fact be possible, such evidence for its existence renders it fully credible, and commands our assent.
Let us then propose the question again, and substitute “impossible” for “incredible," and see how it appears. It will run thus: “Whether or not a fact absolutely impossible in itself can be believed, when attested by witnesses acknowledged to be competent judges of the truth, and persons of known probity and integrity, and when their testimony is attended with those corroborating circumstances which carry with them the highest conviction ?" What answer would common sense give ? Doubtless it would smile at such a question, and at once deny the supposition as a mere chimera, an absolute impossibility. For how could such a case ever possibly exist ? How could an absolute falsehood ever procure such a testimony ? How is it possible that men
of known probity and integrity could ever combine to attest as a truth, and, consistent with their own knowledge, a fact which is absolutely “impossible in itself,” and therefore absolutely false ? How is it possible they could do so in the face of the world, and in the midst of their enemies, without having their folly exposed, and themselves rendered contemptible?
This would doubtless be the language of common sense; and with reason; for the testimony described is a certain and undoubted effect produced, and actually existing. This effect must have had an adequate cause producing it; and this cause could be no other than the actual existence of the fact so attested ; for it is evidently impossible that such testimony should be given to a falsehood. If, therefore, the fact itself be supposed to be incredible, and therefore impossible, to suppose it supported by such a testimony is itself a mere chimera, an absurd supposition.
The consequence of all this is, that wherever any fact, however uncommon or miraculous it may appear, is in reality attested by such testimony as above described, it is unworthy of a philosopher to pretend to reject such testimony from any supposed incredibility in the fact so attested. A fact in itself impossible, and therefore no fact at all, can never be supported by such testimony ; and a possible fact, when so attested, is by that very testimony rendered perfectly credible and worthy of belief. Hence, then, the only rational conduct in all such cases is diligently to examine the testimony, both as to the knowledge and veracity of the witnesses. If any flaw be found there, then indeed the credit of their attestation falls to the ground, whether the fact be supposed credible or incredible. But if the testimony stands its ground ; if the witnesses are competent judges of what they narrate; if they attest it as of their own knowledge, and in circumstances in which they must have been detected had what they said been false; and if they be persons of known integrity and worth ; if the testimony upon the strictest scrutiny be found to be of this kind, then if we listen to the voice of reason, and our minds be not warped by passion or prejudice, it will be impossible to withhold our assent from the fact so attested.
III. But in order thoroughly to refute this unphilosophical argument, let us imagine the possibility of the case proposed. Let us suppose that a fact absolutely impossible in itself, and therefore absolutely false, should be attested by the evidence of human testimony, such as we have above described, and what would be the consequence? why, truly the very same as that on account of which Dr Middleton's Protestant adversaries cry out against his system, and so loudly condemn it; namely, that all faith in history would be destroyed, the credit of the Gospel undermined, and universal scepticism introduced. For upon what is our belief of past or distant facts grounded? Upon the credit of human testimony, and because such is the constitution of our nature, that when testimony is of the nature above described, and attended with the corroborating circumstances there mentioned, we are powerfully influenced to believe it from the interior conviction that such testimony in the circumstances cannot deceive us.
But if, for a moment, we suppose it possible—as in the above case—that testimony of this kind, attended with all its corroborating circumstances, may, in any one case, be given to an absolute falsehood, then it may be given to another also, and if so, to all. Consequently we cannot be certain of truth in any case, and the natural inclination which we feel to believe upon proper testi