There is in Dr. Tillotson's writings, an argument against the real presence which is as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation. It is acknowledged on all hands, says the learned prelate, that the authority, either of scripture or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission." Opening lines of David Hume's chapter entitled "Concerning Miracles" from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Alice C. Linsley
Many are unaware of the role this "learned" Anglican clergyman played in David Hume's dismissal of miracles. Tragically, Dr. Tillotson misrepresented the sources of authority for the Christian Faith.
David Hume (1711-1776) wrote, "A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines,with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement,the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances of experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably begets a pretty strong degree of assurance." (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter 10, Concerning Miracles)
Hume points out that the learned clergy of the Church of England affirmed that the authority of Christianity is founded "merely in the testimony of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples."
Hume is not to be blamed for being wrong about Jesus' miracles. He assumed that the "learned" clergy were accurately representing the basis for Christianity's authority: namely, that the Church teaches what it received from the Apostles. Let us examine this more closely.
The Apostolic witness comes to the Church through the writings of the early Church Fathers and through the writings of the New Testament. The early Church Fathers had to interpret much of what was delivered to them and it took acute reason to sort through all that. It also required employment of Greek philosophy by those who participated in the Council of Nicaea, a number of gatherings that formulated the two natures of Jesus Christ as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. It is clear that Hume has the wrong idea when he asserts that the authority of Christianity rested "merely in the testimony of the apostles."
For the Church, the most authoritative accounts of Jesus' miracles are found in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is not certain that the writers to whom these accounts are attributed were all apostles. Mark and Luke certainly were not. Nor was Paul, the source of about two-thirds of the New Testament writings. Further, John's account differs from the Synoptic Gospels in that it reflects on the meaning of Jesus' miracles. Reflection was something that Hume, following Bacon and Descartes, regarded as essential to discovery.
Further, John's account points to a much older tradition of Messianic expectation among Abraham's Horim (Horite ancestors). The miracles of Jesus align with this very ancient pattern of expectation concerning the "seed" or "son" of God. The learned clergy failed to see this.
Using anthropology, a discipline that owes much to Hume, this Messianic expectation has been traced back to Jesus' Horite ancestors. It first appears in Scripture in Genesis 3:15, the promise that a Woman of the Horite lines would bring forth the "Seed" who would crush the serpent's head. Jesus identified himself as that Seed in John 12:24. He tells his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die and when they object, he explains: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." The purpose of a seed is to die and be buried in the ground. Unless this happens, it cannot bring forth life. This is a universal observation of the ordinary by which the extraordinary is explained to men who appear to be in denial.
The pattern includes such details as being born in a stable to a Horite woman who was "overshadowed" by the Divine Presence, being adored by kings, healing the blind, calming wind and waves, transforming substances, multiplying substances, rising from the dead, subduing enemies, taking a wife (the Church), and being appointed to rule forever over a kingdom. This Messiah was believed to preexist with his Father and was regarded as the fixer of cosmic boundaries and the direction and patterns of winds and currents, stars and constellations. Many ancient rulers drew on this expectation to bolster their claims to the throne, but none of those pretenders rose from the grave.
After years of studying and classifying myths from around the world, Joseph Campbell concluded that the psychic unity of all mankind is expressed in a monomyth, that is, a universal belief in the hero who overcomes this world and leads his people to a greater reality. The evidence from anthropological studies of archaic communities seems to confirm Campbell's research. The expectation of a righteous ruler who overcomes death was universal. C.S. Lewis points this out in Mere Christianity. He writes that God "sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean ... about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men."
Hume added an additional criterion to his empirical method: do not consent to any belief that is not found to be universally true. He is speaking in terms of experience, observation, experimentation, and sense verification. However, applying this same criterion to the evidence concerning universal Messianic expectation, we logically must admit that the authority of Christianity rests not "merely in the testimony of the apostles." It is rooted in a very ancient expectation and involves specific details that Christians have been struggling to understand using reason, philosophy and the senses.
Related reading: The Question of Immortality; Righteous Rulers and Resurrection; Christianity and Messianic Expectation; Fundamentalism and Syncretism in Hebrew History; INDEX of Topics at Philosophers' Corner