Can Historical Accounts of Miracles Be Trusted?
Drawn principally from John W. Montgomery, “A Critique of Certain Uncritical Assumptions in Modern Historiography,” and adapted by Scott L. Keith.
Professional historians frequently assert that “miracles” are not a proper subject for historical investigation. To this end, the English historian and lawyer, F. W. Maitland openly claimed that all the miraculous events recorded in Scripture—such as, Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the story of Abraham and Moses, and Joshua, etc.—are, by most thinking men, thought to be merely mythological accounts and are not to be taken as historical events at all.
Maitland’s assumption that Biblical materials should be regarded primarily as faith-documents and not as reliable historical sources is by no means unique to him. In fact, Analytical philosopher, Anthony Flew, in his work God and Philosophy, well summarizes the case against treating miracles as historical events:
“The basic propositions are: first, that the present relics of the past cannot be interpreted as historical evidence at all, unless we presume that the same fundamental regularities obtained then as still obtain today; second, that in trying as best he may to determine what actually happened the historian must employ as criteria all his present knowledge, or presumed knowledge, of what is probable or improbable, possible or impossible; and, third, that, since miracle has to be defined in terms of practical impossibility the application of these criteria inevitably precludes proof of a miracle.”
Flew argues that the proponent of miracles has no “right” to argue for them by a consistent underlying method of investigation (the empirical method) since one cannot assume that miracles regularly occur. That is, once a miracle has happened, there would be no reason to consider empirical method as necessarily applicable, without exception. So according to Flew, it could be impossible to the investigate miracles at all in the first place!
It is important to remember that there exists a difference between heuristic regularity (experiential regularity) and substantive regularity (regularity which exists of itself independent of our experience). In his work, The Shape of the Past, Dr. Montgomery explains that in order to investigate anything of a factual nature, the empirical method must be employed. In other words, investigation itself relies on certain heuristic assumptions such as an understanding of the law of non-contradiction and inferential methodologies like deduction and induction. Additionally, the investigator cannot get around the unavoidable reality that he, too, exists in the external world.
As well, the investigator ought to keep in mind that the empirical method is not “provable,” to a degree of 100% certainty. (For more on making synthetic statements of probability by using empirical methodology, see the recent 1517 The Legacy Project blog post by Scott L. Keith, What Is Truth.) The justification for its use is not certainty, but rather the fact that we cannot avoid it when we investigate the world. As Dr. Montgomery says: “To prove that what we perceive with our senses is real, we would have to collect and analyze data on its behalf, but we would then already be using what we are trying to prove!” Additionally, empirical investigation does not necessarily commit one to hold that the universe is functionally regular: to a world where events necessarily always follow given patterns. Too, the investigator cannot assume that what happened once will always happen, or even happen again. The empirical method investigates the world in the same way—by collecting and analyzing data. The investigator holds no presumption as to the conclusion of the investigation.
If we by means of clear historical methodology and empirical investigation conclude it is likely a miraculous event did occur, are we to disregard our observations because we “know” such things cannot happen? Flew demands that we answer this question affirmatively. According to Flew and others, to use our collective experience of regularities at all in historical interpretation precludes all possibility of discovering a miracle, even if the observable evidence points to the fact that a miracle did in fact occur.
Historians who a priori assume miracles cannot occur utilize fallacious reasoning. When a historian attempts to interpret events, the goal is to find the interpretation that best fits the facts. Dr. Montgomery explains that:
“Unless we are willing to suspend “regular” explanations at the particular points where these answers are inappropriate to the specific data, we in principle eliminate even the possibility of discovering anything new. In effect, we then limit all new (special) knowledge to the sphere of already accepted (general) knowledge. The proper approach is just the opposite: the particular must triumph over the general, even when the general has given us immense help in understanding the particular.”
So, how does a historian properly determine what has occurred and interpret it? Admittedly, he applies to his investigation of any particular event his endowment of “usual” experience. The historian, in fact, relies on gathered experiential data wherever it serves a useful function and not because he has any metaphysical reason for doing so. But, as Dr. Montgomery says, “the moment the general runs into tension with the particular, the general must yield.”
Dr. Montgomery encourages the investigator to heed two warnings.
- The historian’s knowledge of the general is never complete, so he can never be sure he ought to rule out an event or an interpretation simply because it is new to him.
- The historian must always guard against obliterating the uniqueness of individual historical events by forcing them into an arbitrary general pattern.
It is worth the reader’s time to study Dr. Montgomery’s work, Faith Founded on Fact, wherein he argues that only the primary-source evidence for an event can ultimately determine whether it occurred or not. Additionally, only that same evidence will establish the proper interpretation of that event.
The responsible historian must not disregard the possibility of the occurrence of miraculous events. The job of the historian is to establish the factuality of such recorded occurrences: whether they in fact occurred, and, if they did, the wonderful consequences following from that discovery. The historian’s guide to the interpretation of Scripture is to treat the Bible with appropriate historical seriousness, which includes an openness to the possibility of miracles.